Ray LaHood Targets Distracted Driving

Distracted driving contributes to thousands of road deaths every year. Some states have imposed bans on using hand-held cell phones or texting while driving — but a new study calls into question whether these bans actually help. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood explains what is being done to rein in distracted driving.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

Well, we were hoping to get to speak with Secretary of Transportation, Ray LaHood, who was scheduled to be with us at this time to talk about the Toyota recall and about the distracted driving issue. He recently banned all commercial truck and bus drivers from texting on cell phones or from talking on cell phones while involved in commercial transportation. And President Obama's budget would provide an additional $50 million to make distracting driving laws more effective.

While we wait for the secretary to join us from the Department of Transportation, let's see if we can get some callers on the line who are already anxious to talk about this issue. And Paul joins us on the line from Macon, Georgia. Hello Paul?

PAUL (Caller): Oh, good afternoon, Mr. Conan.

CONAN: Good afternoon.

PAUL: I'm a little bit disappointed I'm not going to get the chance to speak with the secretary.

CONAN: Me too.

PAUL: Yeah. I wanted to say that I am slightly concerned about the unilateral nature of this decision. However, I support it wholeheartedly because it is a safer decision. And also, it imposes a singular universal rule on commercial vehicles in this country. One question I wanted to ask him was about the mishmash of state and local rules (unintelligible) that...

CONAN: Are you involved in driving buses or trucks?

PAUL: Yes, sir. I drive a truck. I'm a (unintelligible) driver. And I have to be in the course of my day with hundreds of local state and municipalities that have various rules regarding when, where, what, why and how I do my job. Sometimes it's inconvenient, but sometimes it's dangerous, you know?

And it's I've been really hoping the federal government would invoke the Interstate - you know, the Interstate Commerce Clause to remove the rulemaking capabilities from the states and local municipalities with the exception of safety, of course...

CONAN: Well, let's see if we can get Paul, I think we have Secretary LaHood with us. Ray LaHood, are you on the line?

Secretary RAY LaHOOD (U.S. Department of Transportation): I'm here.

CONAN: Well, let me go right to that point that Paul raised. Have you invoked these - the Interstate Commerce Clause to override this mishmash of state and local regulation?

Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look, it's a very good suggestion and it's something that I will have our people look into. We haven't done that in this instance with respect to distracted driving. But look, it's a good point and it's something we will look into.

PAUL: Well, Mr. Secretary, I would like to thank you very much for considering it, because as you realize, it can be nuisancing out here to do my job, but it also can be dangerous. I mean, to give you an example real quickly: In Georgia in the summertime, I come out on my truck and run my air conditioning in order to get my federally mandated rest period. But in Florida I'm expected to sleep in a truck and they can get up to 125 degrees.

And while I support anti-idling restrictions, it's just getting so hard to know where and when I can do what. But I thank you for your time and your consideration, Mr. Secretary. And Neil, you have a good day, sir.

CONAN: Paul, thanks very much for the call. And I'm sorry for the abrupt introduction there, Secretary LaHood. Thanks very much for being with us today.

Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you.

CONAN: And what was the impetus for these regulations that you did issue that affect bus and truck drivers involved in commercial interstate transportation?

Sec. LaHOOD: Well, the impetus was that we're trying to save lives. And we had a distracted driving meeting here in Washington for a day and half where over 300 people from around the country attended and over 5,000 were involved on the Internet and participated that way. There's a lot of interest in this. We feel that if we can get cell phones and BlackBerrys and texting and the use of cell phones out of people's hands, we can save a lot of lives.

And we think when somebody is driving a bus with the safety of many lives in their hands, they ought to keep both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road. And now, we believe that with ordinary drivers also, but particularly for those who are driving a bus or a big, huge heavy truck that can do a great deal of damage when it veers on the road or veers off the road. And we don't want these drivers to have any kind of distraction, because we think both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road are the safest way to drive.

And people can't really do that if they have a cell phone in their hand or a cell phone in their ear or a BlackBerry in their hand or are trying to text. You just can't do it safely. You can't drive safely while using either one of those devices.

CONAN: And I understand that point, but getting back to the caller's point, the Department of Transportation has some jurisdiction over the interstate commerce - drivers of trucks and buses - but not over people in just regular drivers in cars.

Sec. LaHOOD: Well, we're hoping to have some jurisdiction. Nineteen states have passed laws. The District of Columbia has a law that says you can't use cell phones, but everybody does it. So we need good enforcement. We need good education. But we also need people to take personal responsibility. And we're going to work with Congress on how to get to enforcement through some good laws.

And we know that good laws and good enforcement have worked to get drunk drivers off the road, and also to get people to buckle up. We know that enforcement works in those two instances, and we believe it will work in the instance of getting cell phones out of the hands of people and out of their ears and also to get texting out of their hands, also.

So we need help on this, and...

CONAN: Well, Mr. Secretary, as you know, the first study done on this was inconclusive, to say the least. A study concluded that in four states that have anti-cell-phone-use laws, the rate of traffic accidents is just the same as in states that don't have those laws. They're not saying...

Sec. LaHOOD: (unintelligible)

CONAN: They're not saying it's safe, but they're saying this is -they're surprised to find this.

Sec. LaHOOD: Yeah. Yeah. I know you all love to use those studies. But let me tell you, the truth of the matter is when people first enacted .08 without enforcement, drunk drivers weren't off the road. And when the Congress enacted seatbelt laws without enforcement, people weren't buckling up.

What really happened was, when you have good enforcement, as I said, we - there's a very strong law in Washington, D.C. You're not supposed to use cell phones. But all you have to do is drive down the street and see everybody with a phone up their ear because there is no enforcement.

So what we need are good laws with good enforcement. What those studies showed is that you can have laws, but without enforcement, you're not going to be able to get phones out of people's ears and BlackBerrys out of their hands.

And so, we're going to work on getting good enforcement. That's the reason we have these studies out there in Connecticut and New York. And that's why we're going to work with Congress on some good laws and good enforcement.

CONAN: Let's get some more callers involved. This is Troy, Troy calling us from Iowa City.

TROY (Caller): Yes. I think people can do more than one thing at a time. So I'm sure if you do a study right now, I bet 90 percent of those people are listening on the radio when they're driving when they get in an accident. So let's eliminate car radios from the car.

CONAN: Now you're talking about my bread and butter here, Troy. So...

TROY: Exactly.

CONAN: We'll get a response from Secretary LaHood. Can people do more than one thing at a time?

Sec. LaHOOD: No. I mean, the truth is, Troy, unless you have both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road, you're not driving safely. You cannot drive safely when you have a cell phone up to your ear or you have a BlackBerry in your hand. Six thousand people died in 2008 from people who were distracted while driving.

And all you have to do is listen to the families who've lost children or children who've lost parents because some idiot was trying to send a message to somebody and they had their eyes on their BlackBerry texting when they should have had them on the road with both hands on the wheel.

TROY: I will bet you that there'll be more people (unintelligible) radio station who get...

Sec. LaHOOD: ...both hands on the wheel, both eyes on the road, you cannot drive safely. If you have your eyes on a BlackBerry for four seconds trying to text, you go the length of a football field, including the end zone, without looking at the road.

TROY: Well, if you're talking to your next - to the passenger, you will get in an accident, too. So let's eliminate people from - two people in a car. Let's just have one.

Sec. LaHOOD: Troy, you didn't hear what I said. I didn't talk about people talking to one another in a car. And I didn't even talk about people using the radio. I talk about people with the cell phone in their ear, when they don't have both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road, and I...

TROY: So are you saying you can't drive and chew bubblegum at the same time?

CONAN: Excuse me, secretary and Troy, Troy is trying an argument called reducto ad absurdum. And he says basically that if you do anything other than driving, you're acting dangerously, trying to make the point that people can do more one thing at the same time.

I suspect Troy, you and the secretary are not going to agree on this point, so we're going to move on, okay?

TROY: Thank you.

CONAN: All right. Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we can get another caller in. And this is Graham, Graham with us from Rochester in New York.

GRAHAM (Caller): Hey, Neal. Hey, Mr. Secretary. Good to get a chance to talk to you. A question about the disparity in penalties for drunken driving and for driving while texting. I believe there have been a couple of studies that show that someone who is texting or talking on a cell phone may be even more dangerous than someone who has a blood alcohol content of .08. Though I suspect that if you increase the penalties for texting to include jail time or really substantial fines, probation, seizure of someone's vehicle, et cetera, that people would riot.

So I'm wondering why these two things are treated so differently, if there is some good science that suggests that they, in fact, pose a very similar risk. So I'll take that off the air. Thanks.

Sec. LaHOOD: Sure. Well, look, we're going to work with Congress on the penalties. And states that have imposed - the 19 states have imposed or passed laws that have imposed penalties, the penalties are financial penalties, the way they would be with a seatbelt law. If you're stopped - for example, my home state is Illinois. If you're stopped in Illinois and you don't have your seatbelt on, it's a $50 fine.

We're not talking about sending people to jail if you don't have your seatbelt on. But we do need tough penalties for drunk drivers, and we do have tough penalties. People lose their licenses. In the state of Virginia, you go to jail for five days if you're caught with .08 - above .08 in your blood alcohol level.

So - but when it comes to texting and driving, you just can't drive safely. And we need good enforcement and we need tough penalties, but we're talking about monetary penalties.

CONAN: And Mr. Secretary, don't we need to look forward, too, as cars -well, manufacturers want to put computer screens in cars so people can look at bigger maps of where they're going. But at the same time, they could be downloading, you know, movies.

Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look, that's a huge distraction. And I've talked to the car manufacturers about this. And in the automobile I own, which is a Ford Escape Hybrid, I have a GPS system. But once you have the car in drive, you can't fiddle with the GPS. You set it on a certain map, and then, you can't reset it once you're in drive, or once you're driving the car.

I know there are some cars where you can do that. I think that's a huge distraction to have people fiddling around, trying to find what street they should be going to.

CONAN: And what do the auto manufacturers say?

Sec. LaHOOD: We're working with them on this issue, and we're working on with them on other distraction issues, also.

CONAN: Okay. We're talking with the secretary of transportation, Ray LaHood. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And Mr. Secretary, we can't have you on without asking you about the big issue that many people are concerned about at the moment, and that's the big recall by Toyota over the issue of those accelerators, the gas pedals that may stick and cause dangerous acceleration.

Have you gotten involved at this issue? I know you told the Associated Press today that Toyota's been very slow to react to this.

Sec. LaHOOD: What I believe is that our agency, the National Highway Safety Transportation Administration, has worked very closely to make sure that Toyota follows the law and follows the letter of the law. Safety is our number-one priority. I would say this: I would say we pushed them pretty hard to get them to where they're at today, which is now, they found a fix, and people should take their cars in and get them fixed. But it was our responsibility to talk to Toyota, to meet with Toyota. We talked to them on many occasions. We met with them. And we pushed them as hard as we could to make sure that people that are driving their automobiles are the safest automobiles that they can possibly be. And yesterday, they announced a fix for this, and we're encouraging people to take their cars in and get them fixed.

CONAN: You're saying they were reluctant to do the recall until your officials met with them?

Sec. LaHOOD: We had a lot of discussions with them, and I would say that we persuaded them that it was in their best interest - but more importantly, in the interests of the driving public, particularly those that are driving Toyota - to find a fix for these vehicles.

CONAN: Let's get another caller on the conversation. This is William, and William's with us from St. Louis.

WILLIAM (Caller): Good morning. I was...

CONAN: Good afternoon.

WILLIAM: Good afternoon to you. I was wanting to ask the secretary about the high-speed rail system, if he doesn't mind answering a few questions about that.

Sec. LaHOOD: No. I love talking about high-speed rail. The president and vice president were in Tampa last Thursday and made the announcement of the $8 billion. This is eight billion times more than we've ever had in this country to get into high-speed passenger rail. We are able to allocate this money all over the country. We're right at the starting point. We're not at the finishing point. We're just beginning. High-speed rail is coming to America. People that have ridden high-speed rail in Europe or Asia come back and want to know why we're not in the business of providing this kind of service, and it's because our government really never made the initiative and never made the commitment of money that President Obama is willing to persuade Congress to include.

And so, in many different regions around the country, we're getting into the high-speed passenger rail business. And this is not dissimilar to where the country was at when President Eisenhower signed the highway the Interstate Highway Bill. Not only lines were on the map, but four decades later, we know that America is connected with a state-of-the-art interstate system. I would say a couple decades from now, we're going to be connected with good passenger rail service that the American people will really enjoy riding.

CONAN: William, did you have a question?

WILLIAM: Yes, I did. Now, the speeds that we've heard so far are in the 120-range. Now, I'm hoping that that's something that's wrong, because they were achieving these speeds in Japan in the early '60s. So I'm hoping that we're going to be developing...

Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look, and I rode a train in Spain that went 250 miles an hour. It took them 20 years to get to that point. And as I said, we're at the starting point. There will be some speeds that will be 110 miles an hour. In some instances, there'll be trains at 150 miles an hour. In some regions, there'll be trains that will be faster than that. What we need to do is make the investments to upgrade Amtrak and freight rail lines to get us to higher speeds than we currently have. But I have no doubt, in America, over the next couple of decades, you're going to have fairly high speeds.

We're right at the starting point. We're just beginning to make the investments the way they did in Spain 20 years ago, and the way they're doing in Asia right now. So we're well on our way. And I guarantee you this: Passenger rail is coming to America. It'll be comfortable. It'll be efficient. It will be cost-effective. And people will want to ride it.

CONAN: William, I'm afraid we're going to have to leave it there. But thank you very much for the phone call. We appreciate it.

WILLIAM: Thank you.

CONAN: And Secretary LaHood, we can't thank you enough for your time today.

Sec. LaHOOD: Oh, thank you. I look forward to doing that again.

CONAN: We'd love to have you back. Secretary of the Transportation Ray LaHood. He joined us today from the Department of Transportation here in Washington, DC.

Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will be here to parse the returns from the Illinois primary, which are a lot about two men who aren't running: the current junior senator, Roland Burris, and the former governor, Rod Blagojevich. Guest host Rebecca Roberts will be here. I'll talk to you again on Monday.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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