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LaHood Pushes Federal Law to Quell ‘Epidemic’ of Distracted Driving

September 21, 2010 at 4:59 PM EST
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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is leading efforts to reverse the "epidemic" of U.S. deaths and injuries caused by distractions while driving, including texting and phone use. He wants a federal law enacted to penalize multitasking drivers and hopes auto companies will minimize the number of distractions offered to drivers.
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GWEN IFILL: Next: what happens when the person behind the wheel is doing more than just driving. Judy Woodruff begins with some background.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On almost any street or highway, you can spot them…

GIRL: Hey. What’s up?

JUDY WOODRUFF: .. drivers talking, texting, doing almost anything except concentrating on the lanes in front of them.

Conservative estimates say, at any given moment, about a million people are behind the wheel of a moving vehicle talking on the phone. And, of that number, about one in four also text.

Last year, as national attention was drawn to nearly 5,000 related accidents, Ray Suarez got a sense of just how difficult it can be to multitask while driving.

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 race car 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 students’ 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 had 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.

(LAUGHTER)

JUDY WOODRUFF: So it was one year ago, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood convened a summit to push for new laws and better enforcement of existing laws. Thirty states and the District of Columbia now ban texting while driving. Eight states bar any use of a handheld phone while behind the wheel.

And there is a nationwide ban on texting by truckers and commercial drivers. Secretary LaHood convened a second summit today. And we caught up with him this afternoon.

Secretary Ray LaHood, thank you for talking with us.

RAY LAHOOD, U.S. Secretary of Transportation: Thank you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, we read that, last year, the number of people who died in accidents related to distracted driving actually dropped. If that’s the case, how bad is this problem still?

RAY LAHOOD: It’s an epidemic, Judy. Everybody in America owns a cell phone or a texting device. People think they can use them anywhere, any time. We see people using them anywhere, any time, some — in most cases, very rudely.

But the point is that you can’t drive a car safely while you have a cell phone or a texting device in your hand. You simply can’t, because you’re taking your hands off the wheel for one thing, and you’re distracted, for another thing. And, so, our statistics, we believe, are really the tip of the iceberg in terms of the real magnitude of this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think the laws that we cited a minute ago are making any difference?

RAY LAHOOD: I think enforcement is important. First of all, you have got to have good laws. There’s a good law in Washington, D.C., and there’s a good law in my home state of Illinois, but enforcement is also very important. Today, while our distracted driving meeting was going on in Washington, the Washington, D.C., police, at the direction of the chief, were actually issuing tickets.

They were sitting on a corner watching people, pulling them over, that were on a cell phone or texting. And they wrote tickets today. That is the kind — that is the way that we will correct very dangerous behavior.

And that went on in Hartford, Connecticut, in Syracuse, New York, where we gave grants to each of those cities for police to sit on the corner. They wrote thousands of tickets, and the amount of distracted driving went down dramatically as a result of their enforcement.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A need for more federal laws, laws at the national level?

RAY LAHOOD: That’s right, Judy. We really do support Congress passing a law. We think a national law can be very helpful, the way a national law for our seat belts, click it or ticket, a national law for drunk driving has really given people the motivation to buckle up.

And the drunk driving laws obviously has taken — have taken a lot of drunk drivers off the road. We think a national law would be good. And there are a couple pending in the Senate. And we hope the Congress will pass a national law.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, speaking of that, I think you told my colleague Ray Suarez last year at this same time that you were meeting with senators. You were hoping to get some movement. Why hasn’t there been movement on this?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, I think we can say that for a lot of issues, Judy, around here. But I think our distracted driving summit today, where Senator Klobuchar from Minnesota came — I talked personally to Senator Rockefeller, who has a bill that has come out of his committee. Senator Schumer has a bill. Senator Schumer from New York has a bill.

I’m hopeful. As a former member of the House, I know how long it takes to pass a bill. This is a critical moment in our effort at really getting cell phones and BlackBerrys and texting devices out of people’s hands while they’re driving. I think Congress recognizes it’s a critical moment. And I have my fingers crossed that they will pass legislation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you still have, as we suggested a minute ago, 5,000 people — even with the numbers down, 5,000 died last year.

RAY LAHOOD: Five thousand and five hundred people died last year as a result of distracted driving, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what…

RAY LAHOOD: And — and a half-a-million were injured, too. That — that’s the other huge number. So, it is a critical moment in this — in this — for this issue.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, what — what does it take to get people’s attention, because I hear a lot of people say, gee, you know, that’s exactly right. We shouldn’t do it. But then people go on doing it.

RAY LAHOOD: Well, I think if people would have tuned in today on C-SPAN or been at our distracted driving summit, they would have heard heartbreaking stories of parents who have lost children, children who have lost parents. That’s part of it.

Good public education is a part of it, making sure that teenagers, as they go through a driver education course, hear about it. There’s a very strong advocacy group called FocusDriven that’s traveling the country, promoting this.

Thirty states since last year — or 20-some states since last year have passed legislation. We need to do more. It is a critical time. We just need to keep the drumbeat going. And that was part of our reason for holding another summit today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, as you mentioned, it is young people who are disproportionately affected by this.

RAY LAHOOD: You know, young people think that they’re invincible, Judy. They think that nothing can happen to them. And we know the statistics don’t bear that out.

We know that, in order to drive safely, you have to keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. And young people think they can text and drive. They think they can use a phone, a cell phone, and drive.

You can’t do it safely. I’m going to be meeting with some teenagers tomorrow, or having a meeting here in Washington, trying to convince them, buckle up, put that cell phone, that texting device in the glove compartment. That’s my message to everybody. But it’s really important to teenagers who are just learning to drive.

And safe driving requires your full attention, eyes on the road, and both hands on the wheel. And we just have a lot of work to do with our teenagers. We really do.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, just quickly, Mr. Secretary, I noted that also, today, you took auto companies to task because they are adding certain features and technology, if you will, to cars that, in your view, contribute to taking people’s eyes and attention off the road.

RAY LAHOOD: I think any of this technology that is in cars where, you know, people can do Facebook and download things and other kinds of opportunities, entertainment opportunities, are a real distraction.

Now, I have had a lot of discussions with our friends in the automobile industry. And I’m going to continue those discussions. We need to make sure that the kind of distractions that take place in the car are minimal in terms of people being able to drive safely. And we need — we need the support of the car industry on this. We really do. And we’re going to keep talking to them until they get the message.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you include the GPS system, the map that so many — that many people increasingly have in their cars as a distraction, or is that a good thing?

RAY LAHOOD: Well, I think any distraction is a problem. Cell phone use, texting devices are the real distraction. But any of these other things are a distraction too, Judy.

And I want to work with the car manufacturers to minimize the number of distractions there are in a car for people who are driving, so that, when people get in, buckle up, and put that cell phone or texting device in the glove compartment, and a minimal amount of distractions in the car.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right. We hear the message loud and clear. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, thanks very much.

RAY LAHOOD: Thank you, Judy.