Phone In One Hand, Ticket In The Other: Ray LaHood Gets Serious About Distracted Driving

April 8, 2010
Eating or drinking while driving is as dangerous as using a cellphone

Eating or drinking while driving is as dangerous as using a cellphone

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Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican member of the Cabinet, feigns being a blocking back for President Barack Obama as he arrives backstage to meet with GOP House leaders before speaking to their issues conference at the Renaissance Baltimore Harbor Place Hotel in Baltimore, Md., Jan. 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza; http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse)

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, a Republican member of the Cabinet, feigns being a blocking back for President Barack Obama as he arrives backstage to meet with GOP House leaders before speaking to their issues conference at the Renaissance Baltimore Harbor Place Hotel in Baltimore, Md., Jan. 29, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza; http://www.flickr.com/photos/whitehouse)

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has worked tirelessly to curtail distracted driving. Now, he's funding a pilot program designed to raise awareness about the dangers of talking and texting behind the wheel, and to ticket those who don't heed the warnings.

The program will be centered on Syracuse, New York and Hartford, Connecticut, and will include beefed-up enforcement of anti-cell phone laws for drivers, as well as high-profile ad campaigns. Both states have enacted legislation that prohibits the use of handheld phones while driving (though hands-free devices are fine). In Connecticut, drivers under 18 and those with learning permits are prohibited from using any sort of phone at all. The year-long campaign will use the slogan, "Phone in one hand. Ticket in the other", and if successful, it will likely roll out to other parts of the U.S.

LaHood is also pressuring automakers to consider phone safety when designing technology for future vehicles. He's of the opinion that talking on the phone behind the wheel is a very dangerous thing, even when drivers use hands-free devices. (And in point of fact, LaHood's opinion has been justified in previous surveys that indicate talking is the real distraction, not the physical act of holding a phone.)

Unfortunately, LaHood will have a hard time making that argument to automakers. Ford, for example, has worked hard to integrate mobile phones in its high-tech Sync system, and nearly every other manufacturer on the block is working toward similar goals. Mobile phones are now so ubiquitous that eliminating them from telematics systems would put any automaker at a serious competitive disadvantage.

Now on the one hand, we agree with Ray, even if he seems a little goofy at times: like walking and chewing gum, or drinking gin and staying fully clothed, talking on the phone and maneuvering a heavy piece of machinery down a stretch of road is something many people just can't do. (That's to say nothing of texting and driving.) On the other hand, mobile phones have become part of our everyday lives. People want access to their phones everywhere, and if they don't turn them off in church, what are the chances that they'll turn them off in the privacy of their own car?

Every convenience comes with its share of dangers. We've learned to accommodate, electricity, cars, and airplanes into our lives, and we're en-route to figuring out the internet. Surely we're smart enough to figure out phones, too?

[WSJ, sub req'd]

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