Rep. McCarthy introduces nation-wide texting while driving ban

Jeff Winkler Contributor
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Rep. Carolyn McCarthy wants a national ban on the use of hand-held devices while driving.

The New York Representative said legislation, which she introduced on Thursday, was a “starting point” for later safety measures against the cellphone practice that is “as dangerous as drunk driving.”

“I cannot [overstate] how serious of an issue this is,” said McCarthy during a press conference announcing the legislation. “Distracted driving is one of the most dangerous problems on the road today. It is, in my opinion, as dangerous as drunk driving or drowsy driving.”

About 5,000 people — roughly .0001 percent of the population — are killed each year due to distracted driving, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Conversely, there were more than 40,000 drunk driver fatalities in 2009, according to the NHTSA’s latest data.

“I think if you start looking at drunk driving and where drunk driving was so many years ago before the crackdown … and when you look at how young, really, texting is … ” McCarthy explained to The Daily Caller, “ … many of us believe that the number of deaths are going to go higher and certainly the number of injuries will only go higher.”

Currently, 30 states have their own distracted driving laws in place. McCarthy said the proposed legislation would nationalize the rules, allowing the government to penalize states 25 percent of their federal highway transportation funding. It’s a model taken directly from the national regulations meant to incentivize local enforcement of state blood-alcohol restrictions.

A 2010 study from the Highway Loss Data Institute of four states with driving bans, however, found that “no reductions in crashes after laws take effect that ban texting by all drivers. In fact, such bans are associated with a slight increase,” according to insurance reports. (Obama taps strategic oil reserves as prices continue to fall)

McCarthy suggested that the figures don’t represent the growing use and prevalence of cell phones for Americans of every age and was confident the long-term measures would save lives.

“Seat belts have become second hand and everybody does use them and it does save lives,” McCarthy told TheDC. “As far as I’m concerned, this is a starting place. This bill is a starting place to get the broadest possible support.”

Another major component of the legislation would require the Department of Transportation to conduct an extensive two-year study on distracted driving. McCarthy said the study would serve as an outline of how to “move forward” with ways to address distracted driving in the future.

Distracted driving has been a top priority for DOT Secretary Ray LaHood. In November, LaHood said the DOT was “looking at” technology that can be installed in cars and disable cell phones. He later clarified his statements and said legislation was the first step, just after the most important aspect — personal responsibility.

Asked if future technological solutions to distracted driving is what she meant by the legislation being a “starting place,” McCarthy said no. (Study: Flashy car owners not the settling down type)

“As long as [people] have cellphones or iPads or Blackberries they’re going to use that technology,” McCarthy told TheDC. “What we’re trying to do is make it as safe as possible and as technology goes further and certainly as things improve, it’ll always be open to re-adjustment.”

While the legislation would ban texting or talking while driving, McCarthy said voice-activated devices would be exempt. The federal government barred truckers and bus drivers from using distracting devices in January 2010.

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Jeff Winkler