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Bills to Curb Distracted Driving Gain Momentum

The New York Times: Bills to Curb Distracted Driving Gain Momentum

By MATT RICHTEL
Published: January 1, 2010

When its legislature convenes this year, Kansas will consider banning motorists from sending text messages. South Carolina will, too, and debate whether to prohibit drivers from using phones altogether, or requiring them to use hands-free devices when they call. New Jersey lawmakers have proposed banning drivers from manipulating a navigation system in a moving car.

In all, lawmakers have already proposed 200 bills to curb distracted driving, and policy analysts expect to see dozens more in the coming months.

“It’s the hottest safety issue in the states right now by far,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents state highway safety agencies.

The flurry of state activity — coupled with intensifying action by federal legislators and regulators, and by the cellphone and auto industries — is putting renewed focus on the risks of using phones behind the wheel, according to policy analysts.

They acknowledge that there is no certainty of how many of the bills will become law, and say that the number of bills is running just slightly ahead of last year’s tally.

But they assert the proposals are being met with less resistance than in years past from legislators, and are enjoying newfound industry support. For example, cellphone and auto companies have joined lobbying efforts for legislation to ban texting while driving.

“People are starting to see it like drunk driving, and that’s the comparison we need to continue to make,” said Steve Farley, an Arizona state representative from Tucson. In 2007, he first proposed banning texting while driving and had little success, but expects a different outcome in the spring.

“It’s amazing to me that, after getting hammered since 2007, so many people are taking up the cause,” he said.

When the bill gets its committee hearing in the spring, he has been promised a strong show of support from the wireless and car industries, insurance carriers, doctors and safety advocates. “This is going to be a show of powerful consensus,” he said.

Much of the lobbying and legislative momentum has focused on texting bans, and policy analysts said there was less consensus but intensifying debate about what to do about driving while talking on the phone; studies show such motorists face a four times greater crash risk. Mr. Farley and others attributed the broad shift in the perception of danger to a handful of factors, including increased focus on the problem by the media and by federal regulators, and the explosion of text messaging. In polls, more than 90 percent of people say they consider texting and driving to be a dangerous mix that should be made illegal.

Four bills are pending in Congress that would push the states to regulate various types of cellphone use by drivers, including banning texting, requiring hands-free devices or prohibiting motorists under the age of 21 from using any devices.

Generally, states regulate their roadways — which is why, safety advocates say, the actions of state lawmakers play such a critical role in addressing the issue. (Currently, 19 states and Washington ban texting while driving, and six states and Washington require use of hands-free devices by motorists talking on phones.)

In December, the House of Representatives passed an order banning 8,000 House staff members from texting while driving (following on an order signed in October by President Obama banning 4.5 million federal employees from texting in state-provided cars or phones or during work hours).

There are new efforts outside statehouses too. The Transportation Department, which in October held a conference on distracted driving, started a television ad campaign this week that says motorists who text or talk on phones lack common sense.

In April, the department plans to spend $400,000 on projects in Hartford and Syracuse to test whether laws restricting cellphone use by drivers really affect behavior behind the wheel.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who in October called distracted driving a “deadly epidemic,” said reform must not end with the demonization of texting.

In Congressional hearings, he said that talking on the phone, even when using a hands-free device, poses a cognitive distraction risk that should not be ignored.

“I’m on a rampage about this, and I’m not going to let up,” Mr. LaHood said of the broader issue of distracted driving. He said that he believed the goal should be to persuade people to shut down their devices or lock them in the glove compartment when they get behind the wheel.

John Ulczycki, vice president for research at the National Safety Council, said “2009 will go down as the year that we got national consensus on the dangers of texting.” The safety advocacy group has called for bans on both texting and talking on cellphones by drivers. “Hopefully, 2010 will be the year we get the same level of attention, if not consensus, on the dangers of conversation.”

Advocates of laws banning all cellphone use by drivers face opposition from legislators who say they want to see data on the number of crashes caused by multitasking motorists.

Little such data exists, given that the police in roughly half the states are not required to ask accident participants if they were on the phone. Even when they do, some motorists do not tell the truth about their behavior.

There are changes on that front too. At least five states, including North Carolina, New York and Pennsylvania, have bills pending that would require the police to collect such data, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures.

In Arizona, the department of transportation is considering creating such a requirement and may be able to do so without legislative action, said Mr. Farley, the state assemblyman.

At the same time, Mr. Farley, a Democrat, said there were powerful politicians in Arizona and elsewhere who did not want to see any regulation of cellphone use by drivers — whether texting or talking.

“They will always believe this is an issue of personal freedom,” Mr. Farley said. He added: “They don’t take into account the loss of freedom when a texting driver runs into someone and kills them.”