Distracted Drivers Beware, LaHood Is On To You

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The Obama administration is taking its first hard look at highway hazards like talking on cellphones and texting while driving. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Wednesday kicks off a two-day summit involving researchers, automakers, safety advocates and lawmakers to find ways of preventing distracted driving from leading to widespread deaths and injuries. LaHood talks to Steve Inskeep about what the summit can accomplish.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Do us a favor, if you don't mind. Look up from the phone where you're sending a text message. Go ahead, you can do it. Look up. It'll still be there in a minute. Listen to this message about dangerous driving.

Government officials, industry leaders and others, start a summit in Washington today. The focus is the explosion in people who send text messages while driving, and sometimes get people killed.

The summit is led by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

You know, every time we've brought up this subject around the office here, it has spurred people to tell stories about things - basically tell stories on themselves about ridiculous things they've done. There are people that I know who've had accidents. There are people who've done ridiculous things and almost had accidents. If you haven't done that, you've looked out the window and seen it.

I wonder if the same kind of discussion takes place in your office.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): Well, it certainly does. And everybody, I think, that owns a cell phone or a BlackBerry and drives an automobile, has either done it themselves, or seen a bus driver on a bus they're riding - or perhaps another form of public transportation, where the person is supposed to be driving safely - and can't do it while they're texting.

INSKEEP: I want to figure out how you imagine fighting against, well, human nature here in a sense.

Secretary LAHOOD: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: There's something oddly addictive about this little device in my hand. How do you deal with that?

Secretary LAHOOD: I think in the end, you have to have tough penalties. I mean you look at 0.08, the tough penalties that are placed on people when they're picked up for drunk driving, they lose their driving privileges for a period of time. They may have to serve time in a county jail.

For teenagers, we have to have tough love on this, because we know the highest incident of accidents is with teenagers.

INSKEEP: I'm trying to remember the 0.08 rule for drunk driving. Didn't that get imposed, eventually, at the federal level for...

Secretary LAHOOD: That's correct.

INSKEEP: ...states that didn't do it?

Secretary LAHOOD: Yes, it did.

INSKEEP: They said to lose their highway money if they didn't.

Secretary LAHOOD: That's correct.

INSKEEP: Is there something like that that you're contemplating for...

Secretary LAHOOD: Well, look, there're - our opportunities for solving this really lie with Congress. And we think our summit will put forth some very strong recommendations, that then we will sit down with Congress and figure out the path forward.

INSKEEP: Given your experience in Congress, and knowing the personalities there, as well as you do, do you think there's widespread support for enacting legislation that would insist the states do something?

Secretary LAHOOD: The real reason for the summit is to raise the kind of public awareness that does not exist now, out among the public, and also around Congress.

And actually the wireless industry - Steve Largent who heads up that industry -a former member of Congress - called me just like a day after we made our announcement and said, I want to be there. We support what you're doing. We know we have support from law enforcement. We know we have support from other industries that are involved. All of these interest groups know that this is a serious problem. They want to be part of the solution, too.

INSKEEP: That's interesting. I mean let's be frank, when an industry gets involved in something like this, they want to - I mean speaking nakedly about their interest - they want to improve their image if they can. They want the product to be used safely. They also want to make sure the product is still used.

Are they afraid...

Secretary LAHOOD: That's correct.

INSKEEP: ...of some kind of a limitation.

Secretary LAHOOD: No, you've hit it right on the head. I mean those are their three priorities. And I think that's why they've embraced our summit. They're going to be very vocal in their support of making sure that when people use one of their devices - whether it's a cell phone or a BlackBerry or an iPod - that it's done safely.

INSKEEP: Let me ask about where you think law enforcement is on this, because they're already are cell phone laws on the books. There're a lot of laws on the books that could be enforced one way or another. And I've been places where there are checkpoints for this. But you also hear stories of people presuming that cops are really busy with other things, and don't have time to deal with this.

Secretary LAHOOD: Well look, law enforcement people are busy with other things. But taking care of this problem I think will become a priority over time. I don't think it'll happen immediately.

I mean if you look at the success of 0.08, it took a while for law enforcement to really be trained. So it'll take some time. But I think eventually the law enforcement folks will make this a priority because they know it will save injuries and save lives.

INSKEEP: Ray LaHood is the secretary of transportation.

Thanks very much.

Secretary LAHOOD: Thank you.

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