Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood makes texting his ‘issue’ despite lacking definitive statistics

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A year into his tenure as transportation secretary, Ray LaHood has made his self-described “rampage” against texting while driving a signature issue. Nineteen states and the District of Columbia have bans on texting while behind the wheel, and LaHood last week proposed language for a nationwide ban, and said he wants to eliminate all distractions while driving.

According to the Department of Transportation, 5,870 people died last year as the result of “distracted driving” — the result of anything from eating, applying make-up, disciplining children or cell-phone use while driving.  It is unclear what percentage of distracted driving accidents are the results of texting specifically.

LaHood, a long-time Republican congressman from Illinois, has aggressively pursued texting, considered particularly risky for teenage drivers, since he joined the Obama administration. In the fall he hosted the first-ever Distracted Driving Summit and launched

“There’s not great data on it,” said Chuck Hurley, chief executive of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Drunk driving killed 11,787 people last year. “I would, in a perfect world, prefer that something that has best data get all the focus, but we’re comfortable with however the public or the media wants to do it.” At LaHood’s behest, Hurley and his organization advised on the launch of Focus Driven, a non-profit that aims to be the MADD of texting. “It doesn’t hurt us that Ray LaHood mentions on every occasion that he wants Focus Driven to be like MADD when they grow up,” said Hurley, who sees the issues as complementary.

Last year Americans sent more than 1 trillion text messages — up from 630 million the previous year.

Between 1998 and 2008 there was an 11 percent increase in the number of both licensed drivers and miles driven, according to the DOT. Over that same period, there was a 300 percent increase in cell-phone subscribers, and a 2004 percent increase in the number of cell-phone minutes used, according to CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group that represents the U.S. wireless industry, including service providers and manufacturers.

Despite the spike in cell phone usage, DOT reported fatalities over the same period were flat. Experts say even with the increased number of people on the road, there should be a decline in fatalities because of advanced safety features in newer cars. Distracted driving has become the focal point of legislators determined to protect Americans from themselves.

“We’ve been very supportive of Mr. LaHood’s efforts, we’re not opposed in any way,” said John Walls, vice president of public affairs at CTIA-The Wireless Association. “We don’t oppose outright bans. It’s up to local constituents and voters to decide. Probably the attitude someone has in regards to wireless use while driving in rural Wyoming or Montana might be different from how they feel when making a left hand turn in New York City. Different driving behavior is related to different regions, that’s why we’ve removed ourselves from the conversation, and left it up to the jurisdictions to decide.”

There have been some naturalistic studies highlighting the dangers of texting, and a few high-profile public transportation accidents in which distracted driving was implicated, including last year’s Metro crash in D.C., which sounded the alarm on the urgency of the issue.

“There’s a number of behaviors that research has proven to be distracting — from drive-through restaurants resulting in so many people eating and drinking behind the wheel, to maps and gps,” Walls said.

LaHood has said he wants to make cars completely “phone-free” zones, and supports the elimination of all distractions — something he mentions often on his blog.  However, some observers question how legislators can ever make cars completely distraction-free. It is possible that talking to a passenger might be considered as distracting as talking on a cell phone, and the public awaits a conclusive study on the issue.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee said that more studies would be helpful. The committee will take up the issue of a distracted driving later this spring as part of the transportation reuthorization bill, although their spokesman says he doesn’t yet know if they will go for the ban outright, or if they will fund more studies on the issue.

“There is a possibility states could lose some of their highway funding unless they enacted laws that do xyz,” said Jim Berard, spokesman for the committee, referring to the possibility of instituting a nationwide ban on texting.

“There might be some push back from mobile phone industry, saying that we’re unjustly targeting their products. But no one is going to say that you should text while driving — they might try to make the case that it’s not as big of a deal as people say it is.”

Past transportation secretaries have picked their pet issues to rally around. Reagan’s Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole mandated the third center brake light on all cars. Under President Bush, Norman Mineta introduced the “Click It or Ticket” seat-belt safety initiative. Ray LaHood has made distracted driving his issue,  and he highlights his accomplishments on his Web site:

DOT says young and inexperienced drivers are particularly at risk.

Contact Aleksandra at: ak[at]dailycaller[dot]com.