The crusade of U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to combat distracted driving appears to have a lot of fits and starts.
He started almost two years ago, looking to bring the same sense of urgency to the issue - specifically cellphone use behind the wheel - as Mothers Against Drunk Driving brought to that problem more than 30 years ago.
At times in his comments, it seemed LaHood has sought to add almost all electronics to his push against devices in the car: GPS navigation, MP3 players and cellphones whether “smart” or not, handheld or hands-free.
And in others, he seemed to be most concerned with cellphone texting and talking. He even went so far to say last year that a U.S.-wide ban on hands-free cell use, which the National Transportation Safety Board has advocated, was not his issue .
The push came back full bore Thursday, with LaHood telling attendees of an anti-distracted-driving summit in San Antonio, Texas, that only a federal, nationwide law banning texting and handheld cell use in cars would begin to reverse the activity’s potentially deadly effects.
He again made the analogy with the social acceptability of drunken driving today compared with 30 years ago. A similar effort, with fines to match, could have great public benefits.
It’s a comparison I still don’t think holds up. Blood-alcohol levels can stay elevated for some time after drinking. Any risk associated with a cellphone call ends when one party hangs up. Legislation tying federal road money to states passing cell-use bans - the only way such a national law could take effect - seems unlikely in this Congress and many state legislatures.
After almost three decades, cellphone use while driving is too ingrained and too widespread an activity to attempt a full ban anytime soon. Unlike with excessive alcohol consumption and driving, there is not yet general agreement on a cellphone use level where impairment is high. Independent research so far has conflicting data on what’s the biggest problem and just how big it is.
The NTSB says all cell use and virtually all electronics brought into vehicles should be outlawed. As of now, LaHood has declined to endorse anything beyond banning handheld cellphones, even if he may be sympathetic to board’s goal.
Personally, I try to avoid talking on my cellphone too much while driving, and use a headset most times when I do (in part to comply with a local ordinance where Snips’ offices are located). I agree with the concept of “cognitive distraction” and cell use. But I don’t see a federal ban working well when state laws just requiring hands-free devices in about 38 states are not well followed or enforced.