JIM LEHRER: Next tonight, the dangers of distracted driving and new government warnings about that problem. Ray Suarez has our story.
TANIA BOURBONNAIS, high performance driving instructor: You should be able to see far enough ahead just by looking over the dash, OK?
RAY SUAREZ: Tania Bourbonnais is a professional racecar driver and performance driving school instructor, taking 16-year-old Maryland high school students through a test course meant to alert them to the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel.
TANIA BOURBONNAIS: And I want you to text, “Welcome to RFK Stadium,” OK?
RAY SUAREZ: The student’s ability to keep their cars inside the cones is quickly and dramatically diminished by the demands of using a cell phone, or what’s commonly referred to as distracted driving. Afterward, the girls each admitted they’d overestimated their driving-while-texting skills.
ANGELIQUE PAYNE, student driver: I actually did until I tried. And she asked me to text, “Welcome to the stadium,” and all I was texting was numbers, so…
STUDENT: Actually, I did think I was better before, but I guess not.
RAY SUAREZ: Safety officials from Ford Motor Company, which sponsored the event, say the danger is very real. Louis Tijerina is senior technical specialist with Ford.
LOUIS TIJERINA, senior technical specialist, Ford Motor Co.: People speed, people tailgate, people weave in and out of traffic, people try to beat the red. Even with all of that, research indicates a 23-fold increase in risk for texting.
RAY SUAREZ: Conservative estimates say, at any given moment, about a million people are behind the wheel of a moving vehicle and talking on the phone. And of that number, about 1 out of 4 also text. Last year, 6,000 people were killed in accidents linked to distracted driving, and another 500,000 were hurt.
Those statistics were cited by officials today, as the U.S. Department of Transportation opened a two-day summit on the subject in Washington. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the problem had reached alarming proportions.
RAY LAHOOD, Transportation Secretary: Every single time you take your eyes off the road or talk on the phone while you’re driving, even for just a few seconds, you put your life in danger, and you put other lives in danger, also.
Growing concern among lawmakers
RAY SUAREZ: Seven states and the District of Columbia ban handheld cell phone use. Text messaging is banned in 18 states and the District of Columbia. Both chambers of the United States Congress are now considering tougher laws banning or curtailing driver cell phone use.
At today's summit, a woman whose mother was killed by a speeding driver who ran a red light told her story.
JENNIFER SMITH, daughter of victim: The first thing the truck driver did admit when he got out of the car is that he was talking on the cell phone. He was not texting. He was not dialing. He was not looking for his phone. He was having a conversation.
This conversation was less than a minute long. He was driving for less than a quarter of a mile. The accident happened at 4:43 p.m. And at 7:05 p.m., my mother was pronounced dead.
RAY SUAREZ: Concern is also growing internationally. In England, this government-produced public service announcement has gotten plenty of attention for its graphic portrayal of the dangers of texting.
Back in this country, U.S. automakers have also weighed in, urging wider use of hands-free devices. Some safety experts insist hands-free units do little to improve safety.
Ford's safety director Jim Vondale says the automaker favors a total ban on texting, but worries that eliminating all cellphone use behind the wheel is not realistic.
JIM VONDALE, safety director, Ford Motor Co.: In states that have passed bans on handheld cellphones, for example, initially, there was compliance, but then, as time went on people started going back to their old behavior. And so our polling results suggested -- and we think it's logical -- that in order to help support these bans, we should offer some sort of safer alternative to people.
RAY SUAREZ: The automaker is promoting a line of hands-free devices in its newer models, saying a combination of new laws and new technology is the key. But driving instructor Tania Bourbonnais says laws in those cities with quick and severe penalties have sharply reduced abuse of cell phones by drivers.
TANIA BOURBONNAIS: I live in Montreal, and the use of handheld cellphones are banned already. Your car will pretty much get confiscated if they catch you.
They gave us a few months' grace period where you'd get warnings, and then it's a pretty strict policy now that, if you've had one warning, that you are either going to lose your privilege of driving or pay a heavy fine or get your car confiscated.
Problem of 'epidemic proportions'
RAY SUAREZ: I spoke with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood about the government's concerns this afternoon.
Well, this morning during your talk, you talked about distracted driving being an epidemic and a menace to society. Those are pretty unequivocal terms for something that millions of Americans do regularly and probably think they've got under control.
RAY LAHOOD: Texting while driving is a menace, it's out of control, and it's at epidemic proportions in America. There's just no other way to put it. And if the folks that are watching this interview would have had the opportunity to listen to the family members of those who lost loved ones because somebody was texting while driving, it will break your heart.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, it sounds like you're talking with a sense of urgency, but when we had a lot of statistics and we knew exactly what was wrong with driving without a safety belt, driving while impaired by alcohol, didn't it take a long time before the culture changed in a way that changed the way people looked at driving this way?
RAY LAHOOD: Well, the two examples that you give are the ones that I also use: .08 now is the national standard. And when anyone sees it, they know what it means. They know that it means that, if you're over .08, you're going to be arrested, and you're going to lose your driving privileges, and you may go to jail.
And people also know that, if they don't have their seatbelt on, they're likely, if they're in an accident, to have an injury or maybe a loss of life.
So those two programs have worked. And we're going to take that model and replicate it for the idea that, while you're driving and texting, it's a huge distraction that can cause injury and death.
RAY SUAREZ: This morning during your address, you said, "You can't legislate behavior." But the victims that you also mentioned, the people who lost loved ones to distracted driving, called for -- and some of your experts called for -- tough legislation to ban the use of cellphones and things that take your eyes off the road inside the car. Now, you mentioned there aren't enough cops. But right now, we've got kind of a patchwork of laws.
RAY LAHOOD: Well, we know that national legislation does work. We know that it worked with .08, and we know that it worked with "Click It or Ticket," which required people to wear seatbelts.
And we're going to work with Congress. We have four senators coming to this conference. And we're going to work with them and any member of Congress who wants to help us.
We'll define the problem. We'll know what the problem is when we leave this hotel, but we need to work with Congress on, what is the solution?
RAY SUAREZ: You need the car companies and the insurance companies, too, right?
RAY LAHOOD: The car companies and insurance companies are on board. We've talked to them. They know this is a serious issue, and particularly the insurance companies. They know the huge cost of injuries and death that are caused by driving while texting. And we won't have any trouble getting the insurance companies and the car manufacturers on board on this. They know this is in their best interest, also.
RAY SUAREZ: Administration officials are expected to announce specific new steps the government will take against dangerous cellphone use at the close of the summit tomorrow.
JIM LEHRER: We've collected stories about the various state laws prohibiting texting and talking on cellphones while driving, and those reports come from our PBS colleagues. You can find them on our Web site, newshour.pbs.org.