In comments published this week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he will not push for ban on hands-free cell phone use in automobiles while the government studies the issue.
It's a bit of dialing down of the rhetoric from LaHood, who has made distracted driving his office's signature cause. A few months ago, he hinted his office might push for the installation of cell phone jammers in automobiles or other means to prevent drivers from using electronic devices in cars. In later interviews, he clarified that to say that he was not pushing for legislation at this time and said he wanted to meet with automakers about the issue.
But in numerous interviews and at press conferences, LaHood has made it clear that he does not like the electronic devices common in many newer cars, from GPS navigation systems to products such as Ford's Sync, which allow drivers to play MP3s, answer calls and read or send texts while never taking their eyes off the road or hands from the steering wheel.
I wonder if LaHood will actually move in a couple years to ban or otherwise disable such systems or if this "study" is just a way to put the tough issue aside. There already have been a few studies, including a major one by the National Safety Council last year, that said the problem of “cognitive impairment” during cell calls does not go away when both hands are kept on the wheel. I wrote about it in Snips a few months ago.
But any attempt to ban these profitable, highly popular vehicle systems will be controversial. Millions of them have already been installed, so even if the Department of Transportation was to attempt to ban them, they would still be on the road for years to come. And U.S. automakers, finally profitable after shedding jobs and product lines and taking billions in federal money, would fiercely fight such a proposal as potentially job - and profit - killing.
And banning the use of hands-free cell phone headsets such as Bluetooth or simple corded earpieces is much tougher than many seem to realize. Some, including LaHood, compare this issue to the move to strengthen drunk-driving laws over the past 25 years. But the analogy doesn’t work.
Even when occasionally driving after having too much to drink was more tolerated by law enforcement and the public, it was still an activity most people did not do, so tougher laws had more support from lawmakers and the public. As LaHood noted this week, two-thirds of young people regularly use handheld cell phones behind the wheel. And almost half of older drivers surveyed say they also use their handheld phones while driving. Other studies have shown even higher phone use. Changing a widespread habit almost 20 years old will be a slow and likely unpopular process.
That’s why only eight states have moved to ban handheld cell use, and why compliance is usually poor among residents. No state prohibits hands-free use for adults.
The government could attempt to tie cell phone restrictions to federal road money, much the way it prodded states to lower blood-alcohol limits and enact seat belt and motorcycle laws in the 1970s and 80s. The U.S. government knows state lawmakers are unlikely to comply without a financial incentive.
But that could face a major push-back from recession-wracked states already hurting for money, and the tea party-infused Congress seems unlikely to impose more federal requirements on states right now.
So what is the answer? I am not sure. I don’t need a study to tell me that the mind functions differently when talking on a cell phone. I avoid long conversations or making calls in heavy traffic. But I am not sure a ban is the way to deal with the issue. There are many useful products that may make driving riskier. GPS systems have a legitimate use, although staring at a video screen in traffic is undeniably a risk. And with today's small headsets, how could traffic officers even see that someone was using a cell phone if their hands are on the wheel?
What do you think?