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Thursday, July 25, 2013

LaHood Says Companies Must Wake Up to Distracted Driving

When Ray LaHood was transportation secretary, he wasn't one to mince words about the risks of driving with a cellphone. But in an interview this week, just a few weeks after leaving the cabinet, he put a particularly fine point on his concerns, saying that car companies and technology companies must wake up to the deadly dangers their products can pose.

He also said that voice-recognition systems for cars - like those that let people compose texts using voice commands while driving - do not meet his standard for safety. The car industry has been making a big push into those technologies, asserting that they are a safer alternative than using a hand-held phone, but some safety advocates disagree.

Mr. LaHood, who called distracted driving “an epidemic” and made fighting it a centerpiece of his tenure, said that he wanted to see the tech and car industries be part of sending the message to consumers about the risks, just as beer companies have done with drunken driving.

“We need to get that same kind of commitment from the tech industry,” he said. “They're not there yet, and neither are the car companies.

“They have to be part of the solution,” he said.

For now, Mr. LaHood said, they are often part of the problem in two ways: by building technology for cars that takes drivers away from the task of driving, and by glorifying the idea that it's fashionable, even important, to be connected all the time. The devices, he intimated, can be as alluring as alcohol. (Previously, the head of the National Transportation Safety Board compared the lure of the devices to cigarettes, saying people have to control their impulses to answer the phone behind the wheel).

“The problem in America is our cellphones are, in a sense, like alcohol. We're hooked on them and can't put them down when behind the wheel of the car, when we're driving,” Mr. LaHood said. “We're hooked on these devices and can't put them down, anyplace, anytime, anywhere.”

It's a comment that shows how vexing safety officials have found the problem of distracted driving. Polls show that drivers know using a cellphone behind the wheel is a risk, but that they do it anyway.

Mr. LaHood, echoing other safety advocates, argued that there were lessons to take from successful past efforts to change people's safety behavior, particularly the push to reduce drunken driving and to increase seat belt use. The lessons, he said, involve having tough laws, tough enforcement of those laws and public service messages that reinforce the legal risks. Also, he said, “we must have personal responsibility.”

The responsibility of car companies, he said, should not be to create a cool factor around dangerous technologies. He said some of the latest generation of in-car entertainment systems in fancier cars might be available to only more affluent consumers, for example, creating a sense of aspiration for all drivers who want to stay connected.

“It's expensive technology, and only people of means can afford it,” he said, “but it lends legitimacy to everyone else who can only afford a BlackBerry or cellphone to say: ‘if you're putting it in the car for these folks, then I can use mine.'”

Mr. LaHood said he would like to see tech and car companies disable the functions that are not directly related to driving when the car is in motion. “If somebody is trying to dial a number, even if it's voice-activated, they're obviously distracted from what they're supposed to be doing, and in many instances, people are driving 50 or 60 miles per hour,” he said.

Mr. LaHood, 67, said he was very proud of steps his office had taken to address distracted driving, including pushing for rules to ban federal employees from texting while driving during work hours, and setting up pilot programs to test heavy enforcement of laws prohibiting hand-held phone use by drivers.

Distracted driving “wasn't in anybody's lexicon,” he said. “We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go.”