DOT Sec. LaHood Takes Aim at Texting While Driving, Car Gadgetry, Sound Policy

Obama Transportation Secreatry Ray LaHood is now formally pushing a federal law banning texting while driving. LaHood has already banned texting for commercial truck and bus operators and federal employees on the job, but applying the ban to regular motorists would presumably involve blackmailing the states with federal highway funds.

But LaHood isn't stopping there. According to US News, LaHood also wants "a device to shut down phones and BlackBerrys when the engine is started." And he's not a fan of GPS, satellite radio, and other enhancements that make time in the car more enjoyable, explaining in curmudgeon dialect that "I'm concerned that some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles in cars that are going to distract people."

As I explained in a piece for US News last year, it's far from clear that any of these distractions are causing mass carnage on the highways:

Since 1995, there's been an eightfold increase in cellphone subscribers in the United States, and we've increased the number of minutes spent on cellphones by a factor of 58.

What's happened to traffic fatalities in that time? They've dropped—slightly, but they've dropped. Overall reported accidents since 1997 have dropped, too, from 6.7 million to 6 million. Proponents of a ban on cellphones say those numbers should have dropped more. "We've spent billions on air bags, antilock brakes, better steering, safer cars and roads, but the number of fatalities has remained constant," safety researcher David Strayer told the New York Times in July. "Our return on investment for those billions is zero. And that's because we're using devices in our cars."

Strayer would have a point if he were looking at the right statistics. But we drive a lot more than we did in 1995. Deaths in proportion to passenger miles are a far better indicator of road safety than overall fatalities. In 1995, there were 1.72 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. By 2007, the figure had dropped to 1.36, a 21 percent decline.

Of course, it's possible that were it not for all the distraction LaHood bemoans, those numbers would be even lower. But let's at least have an honest debate: We're on our cell phones more, we're driving more, and we're on our cell phones while driving more. In that time, the roads have gotten safer, not more dangerous.

Intuition also suggests that getting step-by-step GPS directions from your cell phone is quite a bit less distracting than fumbling with and following your trip progress in an Atlas. It's also hard to conceive of a device of the type LaHood wants that would kill the driver's phone but still allow passengers use of their cell phones. Barring all cell phone use in the car seems like a horrendous overreaction, with all sorts of unintended consequences I'll bet LaHood hasn't considered.

But LaHood has met with the families of people allegedly killed by distracted drivers. And he has said that cell phone-toting drivers in D.C. annoy him. All of which suggests enforceability, practicality, perspective, and the possibility of unintended consequences aren't likely to factor into his decision, nor into whether Congress decides to follow his lead.

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  • ||

    Besides all these 'lectronic gizmos might, you know, cause foreign cars to suddenly and uncontrollably accelerate...and many of these cars are carrying America's children.

  • ||

    Maybe it would be better if we passed a bill preventing Cabinet Secretaries from talking out of their ass in public.

  • ||

    Such a bill (law if signed by the Prez), would a) not be enforced and b) not be effective.

    For much the same reasons, making something idiot proof is just about impossible because idiots are incredibly able to mess things up...

    If such legislation as LaHoodie wants is even momentarily entertained by Congress, it will prove we are quickly heading down the slope of Nanny-Statism, and risk losing any volition of our own...

  • Coeus||

    You need more proof?

  • ||

    Why do we need federal laws on things like this? Or for crimes or 90% of the other things we have state laws for already?

  • Fluffy||

    If he succeeds in putting a device in cars that will prevent cell phone usage for PASSENGERS, I will in a quite undistracted way drive my car through the front door of his fucking house.*

    *This is SATIRE. Dumbasses.

  • BakedPenguin||

    If the bill to shut down the devices goes through, it will effectively prevent cell phone use for passengers.

    And when the first passenger trapped after a wreck dies because they couldn't call 911, the fucking Hood will declaim all responsibility.

  • anonymous||

    That doesn't mean you can't still make him pay.

  • ||

    And he's not a fan of GPS, satellite radio, and other enhancements that make time in the car more enjoyable, explaining in curmudgeon dialect that "I'm concerned that some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles in cars that are going to distract people."

    How much money did Clear Channel Communications pay him to say that stupid shit? You must listen to only crappy broadcast radio because anything else would distract you.

  • Joel||

    He's probably not all that crazy about those new-fangled radio things, either.

  • Almanian||

    I think this is great - continues this administration's apparently concerted effort to piss off EVERYONE in the country. Just helps to ensure their demise.

    So, please, Sec'y LaHood (c'mon, is that a great name for a Regulator or what) - by all means get this stuff implemented and enforced. You think people are pissed about health insurance? Just try to take away their cell phones and crackberries...:)

  • ||

    And if the engine blocks out your phone, what happens when there is an emergency and you can't shut your car engine off or when the devices in the cars going by on the road next to you keep you or anyone else from using the phone.

  • ||

    What if you spot a drunken, dangerous driver? What if you're being followed by some road-rage asshole? What if you're alone on a dark country road and that car behind you with the wig-wag lights just doesn't quite look like a real cop?
    There are a lot of legitimate reasons to make emergency phone calls while driving.

  • Joel||

    Oh, don't worry about that. It's not the policeman's responsibility to protect every individual, after all.

    A few preventable rapes and murders are a small price to pay for the boon of undistracted drivers.

  • ||

    "I'm concerned that some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles in cars that are going to distract people."

    Yeah, I really hate it when my wife and kids have things to do other than bother me when I am driving. What a fucking asshole.

  • ||

    Good thing I wasn't driving when I read that.

  • ||

  • ||

    Another Obama administration douchebag is a moron, a statist, and suggests insanely stupid shit. I've lost count at this point; how many are we up to now?

    GOD DAMN I want to beat on joe right now. If I can't take it out on the actual politicians, I'd like to be able to take it out on their fellators.

  • ||

    Eh, joe would probably point out that LaHood was a Republican in Congress.

    An Illinois Republican, of course. I understand that in Illinois there's even less difference than elsewhere between Democrats and Republicans, just machine and not machine.

  • ||

    No kidding? That is just sorry. But I guess any Republican that Obama would want to give a cabinet position to is probably not worth much.

  • ||

    That would be his response though. The fact that the guy was or is a Republican in Joe's warped mind would totally absolve Obama for putting him on his cabinet. And the bad part would be that Joe would consider himself brilliant for making such a point.

  • ||

    Is this the same guy who said don't drive your Toyota. . .right this second?

  • ||

    Yeah? And what happens if you get distracted as soon as your Toyota unexpectedly accelertates or your Pious' brakes fail to work?

    Huh? What then, Mr. Smartypants?

  • Zeb||

    I think so. I think the name for his affliction is "verbal diarrhea" (AKA the man who taught his asshole to talk).

  • ||

    Logorrhea, while not meaning that literally, sounds like it means that and actually has an apt definition: "pathologically incoherent, repetitious speech."

  • ||

    Maybe he had a bad experience with his gummint driver being distracted by a call coming in for him. He'll be goddamned if he's going to allow THAT to happen again.

    OTOH, I have no doubt that if actually passed, govt officials and peace officers will be exempt from this ban.

  • ||

    I thought it was funny hearing Ray LaHood referred to today as a "Republican member of Obama's cabinet" on the news channels. LaHood's main problem was trying to win a rural midwestern district as a Democrat and so solved the problem by running as a Republican.

    Not that I necessarily have that much use for legit Republicans like Mike Huckabee or Lindsey Graham, but painting LaHood as one of their group is a big stretch.

  • ||

    LaHood. Is that French for 'ass burbling high minister?'

  • ||

    He forgot to list the most significant driver distractions: young children, especially the over-sugared ones, and spouses; let's get them banned too. Better yet, let's mandate single passenger vehicles with no electronic gagetry, that should do the trick.

  • ||

    Everyone should own, small single passenger electric cars that will go no more than 20 miles per hour.

  • ||

    With a range of ten miles, as suburban sprawl must be violently discouraged.

  • ||

    Don't give them any ideas John.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Here you go.

  • BakedPenguin||

    Fuck, Episiarch beat me to it.

  • ||

    Bicycles?

  • ||

    At least we need a ban on having female drivers with another female in the back seat - women can't seem to be able to talk to one another without looking into each other's eyes...

    [Ducking and running from feminist wrath...]

  • ||

    Take away everything that makes a long car ride tolerable. Make security screening just like getting a prostate exam from a cocaine-enraged Steve Smith.

    What's the fucking endgame? Do they just not want us to travel? Stay home and compost table scraps all fucking day? Is all this a stalking horse for rail?

  • ||

    It can't be the stalking horse for rail. If we ever started taking trains, I bet you anything they would want to fuck that up to. Honestly, these people don't know what they want. He is just the stalking horse for nuts.

  • HeatherRadish||

    What's the fucking endgame? Do they just not want us to travel?

    Travel makes Gaia cry (ZOMG! Global warming!). Besides, they know better than we do where we should be allowed to go, and how...

  • ||

    The fucking endgame is, frankly, Brazil. It's not that they're consciously trying to achieve that (at least, not most of these scum), it's just what happens.

  • ||

    Honestly, people like LaHood just can't accept that life sometimes sucks. Kids get cancer. Little old ladies get run over by trains. Nice college girls get picked up by strangers and murdered and raped. They see the parade of horribles that is a part of this world and their mind short circuits. They feel that it is their duty to go out and eliminate as much bad as possible. As a result of this, they can never see any choice as being a balance between two undesirable outcomes. They can't understand that banning cellphones also has bad consequences. They only see innocent people dying in accidents because of cell phones. And they act accordingly. It really is a form of mental illness I think.

  • ||

    I can't think of LaHood without picturing him as Dan Hedaya.

    My apologies to Mr. Hedaya.

  • Zeb||

    I think that this is really it (or at least a big part of it). Unfortunately, the people who write the DSM are probably all for most of this sort of shit. These people aren't deliberately conspiring to ruin a way of life or anything like that. They have just got it into their head that there ought to be a (federal in this case) legislative solution to every bad thing that can possibly happen. Some people just can't accept that bad things happen to good people and always will.

  • ||

    Indeed, "prevention" is something of a religion nowadays; the hope seems to be that sufficient prevention will bring about Nerf World.

  • ||

    Is all this a stalking horse for rail?

    That may be part of it. LaHood is a notorious public transit advocate. Likely one of the main reasons he was picked for this particular position (the other is that he's a big union guy as well).

    LaHood's one of the reasons I hate the term "moderate Republican." It gives me no useful information as to whether I should like the guy or not.

  • Paul||

    Take away everything that makes a long car ride tolerable. Make security screening just like getting a prostate exam from a cocaine-enraged Steve Smith.

    Driving in your car should have all the pleasantries, excitement and technological convenience of standing in line at the Post Office...according to Ray LaHood.

  • Paul||

    Ray "Ralph Nader" LaHood.

  • ||

    Unsafe at any volume.

  • ||

    You know what else distracts drivers? Children in the back seat (where the law says they have to be). I was almost run off an interstate once by a [noun] trying to retrieve her child's pacifier off the backseat floor at 75 mph.

    If you ban my satellite radio, which doesn't distract anymore than an AM radio, I demand children be banned from passenger vehicles as well.

  • Paul||

    Remember, folks, it ain't a democracy, it's an oligarchy of unelected career bureaucrats.

  • ||

    I can only hope.

  • 4-year-old||

    I'm old enough to remember when you were still in love with India. But you left her for China.

  • robc||

    I read the title as "sexting while driving".

  • 4-year-old||

    Goddam pedophile.

  • Paul||

    Barring all cell phone use in the car seems like a horrendous overreaction, with all sorts of unintended consequences I'll bet LaHood hasn't considered.

    And I'll bet you all the way up to .50 cents that he has considered them, but being a pencil-necked bureaucrat, he just doesn't care.

  • Raven||

    I can't speak for anyone else, but my satellite radio keeps me alert during a very long commute. Yelling at Fox News commentators may be the only thing standing between me and a deadly snooze.

  • Paul||

    I on the other hand believe that NPR should be banned... I can't tell you the number of times I've wanted to swerve into oncoming traffic just to make the Paul Krugman stupid stop.

  • Zeb||

    And yet you continue listening (as do I). Sad that there are no preferable alternatives on the air.

  • Paul||

    I'm sure the sweet embrace of death will eventually save me.

  • Raven||

    Perhaps this is because much of my commute is quite rural and pretty sleep-inducing without a distraction.

  • Paul||

    Here's the picture I just uploaded picture as the startup screen for my Garmin nuVi.

  • ||

    blackmailing the states with federal highway funds

    Amateurs! All it takes is the invocation of my holy name and state governments bow down before me.

  • ||

    According to a quick and amateur check of the interwebs, Massachusetts tried to ban car radios back in February, 1930. For all the same, old, tired reasons. Except they were fresh and new back then.

  • ||

    Ray LaHood is a fucking retard.

  • wackyjack||

    Unfortunately, this isn't even close to LaHood's finest hour. Megan McArdle has it here Driving slower isn't safer

  • Paul||

    Nice... very nice.

    Just in case people are too lazy to follow the link, here's the punchline:

    At which point Secretary LaHood achieved liftoff and rapidly departed reality. He responded that lowering the speed limit to 30 mph would not save any lives, which is why we have minimum speeds on highways. Representative Souder looked just as flummoxed as I was; did the Secretary of Transportation really not understand that the minimum speed limit exists to ensure that traffic is travelling at basically the same speed--which is indeed safer than allowing wide speed differentials? Could he possibly believe that it was actually safer to drive 40 mph than to drive 30 mph?

    Yes, apparently he could. When Souder pointed out that the minimum existed in order to minimize speed differentials, LaHood proclaimed, "I don't buy your argument, Mr. Souder".
  • Paul||

    Ok ok, I switched it to this picture instead. Has Ray Lahood in a more "WAIT! STOP!" kind of vibe when my nuVi starts up.

  • ||

    The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

    Are we there yet?

  • Paul||

    Ray LaHood won't let me use my GPS, so I can't give you an ETA.

  • ||

    It's a long road.

  • Slut Bunwalla||

    Who wants to bet LaHood's own car contains all the latest features and gadgets, including an iPod/satellite-ready stereo and a GPS unit?

  • kinnath||

    Apparently, LaHood has not see a photo of the new Boeing 787 cockpit. I'm sure he'd ground the aircraft for having to many distractions for the pilots.

  • Paul||

    Hate to be the buzzkill on this one (I agree with you in principle) but, yeah, but the pilots aren't 98 year old geezers pressing the gas pedal harder while thinking they're pressing the brake, claiming "sudden acceleration syndrome" while careening down the road, then, without irony, claiming that "god" intervened and stopped the vehicle-- while they're on a cell phone with a family member saying their last goodbyes.

  • kinnath||

    LaHood is complaining about technology that we already know reduces demand on the operator's attention (regardless in an aircraft or a car).

    The only real difference is that auto operators are not required to train on new equipment before they get behind the wheel.

  • ||

    Polish that up and you might be able to sell it to Hollywood, they're pretty putting out nothing but unlikely fantasies these days.

  • ||

    Creating a way not to distract the driver is one thing, banning the use of cell phones by non-drivers won't happen.

  • Harry Reidbot||

    "We've spent billions on air bags, antilock brakes, better steering, safer cars and roads, but the number of fatalities has remained constant," safety researcher David Strayer told the New York Times in July. "Our return on investment for those billions is zero. And that's because we're using devices in our cars."

    Strayer would have a point if he were looking at the right statistics. But we drive a lot more than we did in 1995. Deaths in proportion to passenger miles are a far better indicator of road safety than overall fatalities. In 1995, there were 1.72 deaths for every 100 million miles traveled. By 2007, the figure had dropped to 1.36, a 21 percent decline.

    Not only are we seeing a return on those safety investments in terms of a drop in fatalities per passenger mile, but I'm fairly confident that we're seeing a drop in fatalities per passenger Joule as well.

    I can't point to studies to this effect, but at least in Texas, there's been a general upward trend in traffic speeds as well. So not only are there more cellphones since 1997, but there's very likely an increase in average passenger kinetic energy in that time as well. Speed kills, as the Carter Administration showed, so at least some of the not-decrease in deaths have to be laid at the foot of average velocity, not distracting techno-whizbangs.

    That said, from my own experience, cellphones and texting both distract me from driving, and I'd argue that you're a fool to do it. Except at a stoplight, which current laws don't allow for.

  • lunchstealer||

    Hmm, the robustness of the new 'remember me' checkbox has returned to bite me in the ass.

  • J. P. Carlo||

    "It's also hard to conceive of a device of the type LaHood wants that would kill the driver's phone but still allow passengers use of their cell phones. Barring all cell phone use in the car seems like a horrendous overreaction, with all sorts of unintended consequences I'll bet LaHood hasn't considered."

    Not to mention the fact that it'll probably also kill cell phones *outside* the car, too, such as people on the sidewalk or inside their homes as a car drives by.

    Might make it impossible for somebody stranded on the side of the highway from calling for help, because their phone would keep getting shut off by passing cars.

  • ||

    we should get rid of cars. then people wouldn't get into car crashes!

  • PicassoIII||

    So every car i own has a "Hang up and Drive" bumper sticker, still, technology marches on. Bordeline luddite, BUT there's mounts for both ze iPhone and Valentine1.
    Real time traffic on a map is teh shit.
    Some carmakers are integrating these things very well.
    Even having two awesome cars totalled by multitasking soccer parents this is statism at it's almost worst. Actually cars that flood the cabin with EMR might be AT it's worst.
    LaHood being from the land of Lincoln is even more ironic....

  • ||

    I still say I'm much less safe now that I'm driving a car with anti-lock brakes, I could stop it faster and safer without them. Then again, unlike the bozo in the article I'm not out to force everyone to not have them in cars.

  • deanna||

    Just what I need..the call for my kidney transplant comes in, and I miss it. Fantastic.
    What a douchebag.

  • ||

    "We've spent billions on air bags, antilock brakes, better steering, safer cars and roads, but the number of fatalities has remained constant."

    Actually, this is to be expected. People are comfortable with a certain risk/reward ratio. If you lower the risk of driving by adding safety features such as airbags, people will naturally feel comfortable taking a few more risks, such as talking on cell phones.

  • ||

    The problem is not that LaHood is a closet Democrat, it is that he was a congressman. Legislators seem to think that the solution to every problem is a new law, which is why we have so many absurd laws. They also make a lot of really stupid pronouncements, which have no effect whatsoever so they can be made without consequence to the public. However, when you do have power to make rules, you need to filter your comments a lot better than LaHood has managed to do.

    One imperfect solution to unsafe texting/dialing while driving would be to create a presumption that the person using the device during an accident is liable. Proving that they were using the device might not be easy, but not impossible, either.

    There are plenty of times that cell phone use while driving is perfectly safe and reasonable, but certainly times when it is unsafe and contributes to accidents. As a bicycle commuter, I keep a careful and nervous eye on drivers with a phone in their hands, especially at intersections or tricky stretches of road. Even so, as others have pointed out, speaking on a cell phone is no more distracting than dealing with squalling kids, arguing with your front-seat passenger or any number of ordinary driving distractions.

  • JohninSD||

    In my opinion the best solution to all this is to let people do whatever they want while driving but if they cause death, injury or property damage because of a self inflicted distraction their licenses should be permanently revoked and if they are caught driving on a revoked license serious prison time should be the consequence. We could easily make room in the prisons by repealing the drug laws.

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