JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood nearly stopped traffic earlier this month. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he said drivers are distracted by any cell phone use, and he may eventually push Congress for a national ban on cell phones while driving. That means not just no texting but no hands-free talking, no Googling a map, nothing.
Since the interview, Secretary LaHood has taken heated criticism from op-ed writers, bloggers and commuters. What do you think? Would an all-out ban on cell phones go too far? Or, is it needed? 800-989-8255. Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.
Secretary LaHood is joining us in Studio 3A. Welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.
Secretary RAY LaHOOD (Department of Transportation): Thank you. Good to be back.
LUDDEN: You said in this interview and I quote, "I don't want people talking on phones, having them up to their ear or texting while they're driving." And the story says you also include Bluetooth-enabled hands-free calls when you were discussing this. Really, no cell phones at all?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look at it, it's a big distraction. Last year, 5,500 people were killed as a result of distracted driving and a half a million were injured. Those are big numbers. A lot of lives and a lot of injuries can be saved if people take personal responsibility when they get in a car to buckle up, which 85 percent of the people do now today, and put their cell phone or BlackBerry in the glove compartment. There is no call, there is no text message that's too important that it can't wait until you get to your destination.
LUDDEN: What kind of reaction are you getting?
Sec. LaHOOD: From families who've lost loved ones, whether parents who've lost children or children who've lost parents, they're behind me a thousand percent. When you hear the heartbreaking stories that we've heard at our two Distracted Driving Summits, you realize very quickly that there is no message, there is no call that cannot wait and that will distract you while you don't have both hands on the wheel and both eyes on the road.
LUDDEN: But this is really becoming such a social norm, I mean, to the extent that now we hear about auto manufacturers who are making new models with all kinds of, you know, equipment in it, mp3 players, GPS maps, cell phones, Wi-Fi in the car. You know, have you had reaction from them? And are you going to meet with automakers about this?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, I am meeting with automakers about it because I want them to understand that they can be a part of the solution, that they can be a part of helping us solve this problem. I actually called the Subaru company, the Subaru CEO and complimented them on their advertising where they spend 30 to 60 seconds on a commercial dissuading and discouraging people from texting and driving and cell phone use in driving. That's what we need.
LUDDEN: I think you've also got support from Verizon, is that right?
Sec. LaHOOD: We have support from the technology industry on our efforts. They also get it, so do a couple of the insurance companies - Allstate, State Farm. They're with us on this. They get it also.
LUDDEN: But now there are efforts from the - I don't know what you call it -social media, entertainment industry to make what they say would be a safer way. The OnStar is a program with 5.7 million subscribers. It says they're testing an application to have audio updates to Facebook, and the Facebook can read you your emails while you're driving out loud, so you don't have to look down and check. I mean, is that helpful? Or, is that still going in the wrong direction?
Sec. LaHOOD: Look, the epidemic in America is caused by the fact that everybody has a cell phone or a BlackBerry and people think they can use them anytime, anyplace. You see people using them in churches, at ceremonial events -everywhere. It's an epidemic because everybody does it. And then people think they can do it while they're driving. My cause is to get people to put their cell phone and their BlackBerry in the glove compartment. Thirty states have passed laws that outlaw it. These other devices are cognitive distractions. They are. They take your mind off of safe driving.
LUDDEN: Let's bring a phone call in now. We have Jeff(ph) on the line from Kansas City, Missouri. Go right ahead, Jeff.
JEFF (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. First of all, Id like to say I do agree in principle cell phones create a distraction behind the wheel. Legislation like this would certainly help to prevent some crashes. I can't see this is going to work in practice. I can't see how youd get this national law passed, how youd get support for it on the nation, but more specifically, how you would enforce the law, how you would get people to comply with it.
Cell phones have become such a massive part of our culture and I'm not saying that's a good thing, but they have. And it's I can't imagine how we would backpedal from it in such a way.
Particularly, taking away hands-free devices, most people would argue and I have a hard time disagreeing, that a phone conversation with the hands-free device is a little different than a conversation with somebody in the car with you. And, yes, that's a distraction too. Are we going to stop that? Are we going to ban people from eating in their cars if they're on a road trip or a business trip? I agree, it's a distraction. It's dangerous. But I don't know how we're going to stop it.
LUDDEN: All right, Jeff. Thank you so much for the call. And let's put that to Secretary LaHood.
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look, eating in the car is not an epidemic. Talking on a cell phone and texting messages is an epidemic because everybody does it. Everybody that has a cell phone and drives has done it. Accidents have been caused. People have been killed.
But let me tell you how we're going to fix it. This is the same argument that people made when they say we couldn't get drunk drivers off the road. With good enforcement, you can get drunk drivers off the road. This is the same argument that people made 10 years ago when they said, well, you're not going to get people to buckle up. They're not going to do it. It's too uncomfortable. Now, because of good laws and good enforcement, 85 percent of the people buckle up.
And here's what we did. We gave two grants: one to Hartford, Connecticut, and one to Syracuse, New York. Two hundred thousand dollars each, matched by $100,000, they pay police to sit on the streets. And if they see somebody on a cell phone, pull over, you get $100 ticket. And in four days, 5,000 tickets were written combined in both of those cities.
When we had our distracted driving - second distracted driving summit here in Washington, we asked the police to sit on a street corner and pull people over. Within two hours, they pulled 18 people over. They wrote tickets. Enforcement is the way that you will change very dangerous behavior.
LUDDEN: Okay. But that's a lot of resources you're talking about. And we just have the Insurance Institute For Highway Safety recently released a study that said the laws banning hand-held texting don't reduce crashes. In fact, three of the four states it looked at, the number of crashes overall went up.
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, look, a law does not change people's dangerous behavior, enforcement does. So you have to have good laws. This study is flawed. And the reason it's flawed is because, last year, only 18 states had passed laws. This year, we're up to 30 states. We need good enforcement. We need to get law enforcement to do what they're doing in Syracuse and Hartford and Washington, D.C. Sit on street corners, pull people over, write them $100 ticket. That will change bad behavior. Good laws, but good enforcement. That study is flawed because it doesn't talk about the enforcement part of it.
LUDDEN: Good enforcement does take money.
Sec. LaHOOD: Of course, it does. And we know that police have many, many things to do. That's why we provided these grants to specifically help police departments provide us the empirical data that, if you write tickets, you begin to change bad behavior. Distracted driving dropped dramatically in both of those cities.
LUDDEN: Okay. Let's take another phone call. Jesse(ph) is on the line in Hartford, Connecticut. Go right ahead, Jesse.
JESSE (Caller): How are you guys?
Sec. LaHOOD: Good.
JESSE: Good. First, thanks for taking my call. I do live in Hartford, Connecticut, and I have received a ticket for talking on a cell phone while driving. I'm just wondering because I see officers in Hartford constantly on the phone while they drive. What would that have an effect on their actions and their behaviors if this law will become a national regulation?
Sec. LaHOOD: Well, in the states that have passed laws, law enforcement people are exempted because of the jobs that they have, and that the ability that they need to be able to talk on cell phones. I believe they are trained to be careful when they're doing it. But the truth is, they're exempted because of the safety because they're public safety officers and they're required to have that kind of communication.
LUDDEN: All right. Jesse, thanks does that answer your question?
JESSE: I guess I would just prefer that. I mean, obviously, the interest of the public safety is important. Ill tell you, if I'm an entrepreneur and I have 45 people who depend on my performance, and Im in the car five hours a day, would you support offering some type of class or training where I could have similar training and be able to use my cell phone while I drive, because I produce output from being on the road and being on my phone?
Sec. LaHOOD: Absolutely not. Driving and talking is dangerous. Using a cell phone or a BlackBerry is dangerous while you're driving.
LUDDEN: Jesse, thanks for the call.
JESSE: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Let's go to Casey(ph) in Los Altos, California. Hi, Casey.
CASEY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I just I think that the last caller made a great point. I mean, if the police can be trained to do it safely, then people can do it safely. And there are so many other things.
I've been on my cell phone driving and there's a slow person in the way, and you get up there and it's a lady feeding French fries to her kid in the backseat of the car. Youre just never going to be able to stop that without one-seater cars. People will always be distracted. And it's just going to have to be their job to take responsibility for minimizing that distraction and minimizing their taking, you know, other people's safety at risk. And when a problem happens, then they'll have to pay for that. But you're just never going to do that with legislation. And it's such a waste of money and resources.
Sec. LaHOOD: Yeah. Well, that's what people said 10 years ago when they said we can't get people to buckle up. And because of good laws and good enforcement, 85 percent of the people do.
CASEY: You should...
Sec. LaHOOD: And that's what people said, we can't get drunk drivers off the road. With good laws and good enforcement, we've taken a lot of drunk drivers off the road. This is as critical a safety issue as seatbelt laws and drunk driving laws.
CASEY: I still don't think that you've gotten those people off the road. You...
Sec. LaHOOD: Oh, no we have. Eighty-five percent of the people buckle up today because of good laws and good enforcement.
LUDDEN: All right. Casey, well, thank you very much for your call. We have time for one more quick one. Brian(ph) in Albany, Oregon, go right ahead.
BRIAN (Caller): Hey, thanks for taking my call.
LUDDEN: Go right ahead.
BRIAN: I just wanted to say that - yeah, can you hear me?
LUDDEN: You're driving there, Brian. Are your driving while you talk to us?
BRIAN: I am driving right now, yeah.
Sec. LaHOOD: Okay. You know what you need to do, you need to pull off the road if you're going to talk to us. Why don't we take another call while he pulls off the road?
BRIAN: No, I'm a CDL driver. I'm a career driver and...
Sec. LaHOOD: Yeah. Well, that's even worse. That's even worse. You're even driving a more powerful vehicle. If you want to talk to us, you should pull off the road and we'll be happy to hear what you have to say.
BRIAN: Okay. Tell you what, I'll pull off. I got a spot. I can pull off right here. I will do that.
LUDDEN: All right. You know what, we are actually...
BRIAN: Can you just give me five seconds?
LUDDEN: We are actually running out of time, Brian. But you can give your question to the caller there and we'll put in online. Ray LaHood, we are out time.
Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you.
LUDDEN: Secretary of Transportation, thank you so much...
Sec. LaHOOD: Thank you.
LUDDEN: ...for joining us here. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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