December 22, 2011, 11:07 AM — U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been a vocal critic of distracted driving, suggesting at one point last year that a national ban on cellphone use by drivers may be inevitable.
But LaHood's definition of "distracted" differs from the National Transportation Safety Board, which last week called for a ban on the use of all electronic devices while driving, even so-called "hands-free" gadgets.
LaHood ... said the focus should be on texting and hand-held cell calls, not fast-growing new technology that allows drivers to talk while keeping their hands on the wheel.
"That is not the big problem in America," LaHood told reporters (at a news conference in Washington). "Most people don't put Bluetooth or Sync in their cars because they can't afford it. Everybody has a cell phone in their hand and it's held up to their ear while they're driving."
LaHood's opinion matters more than the NTSB's because his transportation agency has the power to establish auto-safety rules, unlike the NTSB, which can only propose laws.
According to the Transportation Department, distracted driving killed more than 3,000 people in 2010. The department says studies show that even hands-free devices can detract from a driver's focus.
But hands-free is becoming an emerging industry, with automakers such as Ford installing its Sync hands-free system in newer vehicles, so industry pressure will remain on lawmakers to ignore or dismiss research that shows hands-free devices also distract drivers.
The use of handheld devices while driving currently is outlawed in nine states and Washington, D.C., while 34 states plus D.C. ban texting by drivers.
These laws are routinely ignored, so it's not likely that a nationwide ban would be effectively enforceable. Our only hope for reducing the growing dangers of distracted driving is the widespread individual application of common sense, judgment and self-control.
So, really, we're screwed.