Advocates on 'rampage' to wage war on distracted driving

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, shown speaking Monday at the North American International Auto Show, said Tuesday that he favors a total ban on the use of cell phones while driving. 'We're not going to sit around and we're not going to wait for Congress. We're moving ahead,' LaHood said of the campaign by advocates to combat distracted driving.

To anyone who wasn't there in person, who couldn't see Ray LaHood at a press conference in Washington, D.C., and instead had to imagine him from the voice and demeanor streaming through the phone via teleconference, it seemed as though the federal Transportation secretary was channeling the roughest, toughest cowboy he could find.

LaHood's voice was loud and animated Tuesday as he announced his support for a major initiative to combat distracted driving, and it rose to a shout as he took questions.

"Lookit," LaHood announced at one point, "the reason we say this is an epidemic, we are hooked on our cell phones. … Everybody in this room has one, everybody is guilty of using one while driving, and some of you are guilty of texting while driving."

LaHood, along with the president of the National Safety Council and anti-distracted driving advocates, announced the formation Tuesday of a national nonprofit organization called FocusDriven whose goal is to do for distracted driving what MADD did for drunken driving.

Janet Froetscher, president of the National Safety Council, said the council estimates that 1.4 million crashes a year are caused by drivers using cell phones and an additional 200,000 per year by drivers who are texting.

The five board members of FocusDriven have all lost family members to accidents caused by drivers who were using cell phones.

The council, LaHood and the advocates gathered Tuesday support a total ban on cell phone use: "No cell phone use while driving, period," LaHood said. He and others also said there are no studies that show hands-free usage is safer.

In Connecticut, state law bans hand-held cell phone use while driving but allows hands-free devices. There is no state law that bans texting while driving.

As for any differences between a cell phone conversation and talking with passengers in the car, a fact sheet on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's Web site said some research shows each to be "equally risky, while others show cell phone use to be more risky."

The safety administration added that a passenger in the car "can monitor the driving situation along with the driver and pause for, or alert the driver to, potential hazards, whereas a person on the other end of the phone line is unaware of the roadway situation."

LaHood wants to eliminate all distractions, he said, whether it's the driver eating a hamburger from a fast-food restaurant, turning around to scold a child in the back seat, putting on makeup or talking on the phone. "We're against all of that," he said.

LaHood was asked a follow-up question a few minutes later about the distinction between hands-free devices.

"You heard what I said, you know what I stand for," he replied, adding, "We want the highest standard possible."

And he gained momentum as the questions piled up.

On the trouble with enforcement when someone is using a hands-free device: "We're not going to let a difficulty like that get in the way of enforcement. We're just not. We're going to figure it out. We'll find ways to do it."

On the notion of Congress enacting a federal law banning cell phone use while driving: "I was a member of Congress; I have a great deal of respect for their ability to do many things, but almost all of those take a long time. We're not going to sit around and we're not going to wait for Congress. We're moving ahead, i.e. this group being formed, i.e. we're on a rampage about this."

Jennifer Smith, president of FocusDriven, said the organization will borrow much from the MADD playbook, including forming regional chapters, lobbying legislators and launching public-education campaigns.

"We're a survivor advocate group that seeks to help others who have lost (loved ones)," Smith said, adding that the losses were "senseless and totally preventable."

Smith's mother was killed in September 2008 by a driver who was talking on a cell phone and ran a red light.

FocusDriven will rely on individual and corporate donations and has as its goal "to produce widespread changes in behavior and social norms."

LaHood said repeatedly on Tuesday that the change begins when enforcement is added to education and lobbying.

"We're at the beginning," he said. "When (CEO) Chuck Hurley and his group started out with MADD, there were a lot of people around the country using alcohol. And (now) everybody knows what .08 is. They also know law enforcement is not going to put up with someone drinking and driving. … It's the same with Click It or Ticket."

Connecticut and New York have each received $200,000 in federal grant money from the federal DOT's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to step up enforcement of laws against cell phone use while driving, according to the federal DOT.

LaHood said the federal DOT will evaluate how well the stepped-up enforcement works.

When asked to respond to recent news of a Twitter-enabled car, LaHood said, "I think I already have. Any distraction that takes two hands off the wheel and your eyes off the windshield should not be allowed."

The DOT cannot ban them, however, nor can it single-handedly provide incentives to states that enact laws banning cell phone use. Currently, federal law offers funding incentives to states that enact various laws aimed at preventing drunken driving.

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