DOT summit spotlights distracted-driving issue

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called for regulations to ban cell phone use while operating commercial vehicles. The call to action came during a special distracted-driving summit meeting convened September 30-October 1 by the Department of Transportation (DOT).

LaHood pledged to work with Congress to ensure that the issue of distracted driving is appropriately addressed. He also announced a number of immediate actions DOT is taking to combat distracted driving, including the department’s plan to create three separate rulemakings that would target:

--Making permanent restrictions on the use of cell phones and other electronic devices in rail operations.

--Banning text messaging altogether, and restricting the use of cell phones by truck and interstate bus operators.

--Disqualifying school bus drivers convicted of texting while driving, from maintaining their commercial driver licenses.

LaHood also called on state and local governments to work with DOT to reduce fatalities and crashes by making distracted driving part of their state highway plans, and by continuing to pass state and local laws against distracted driving in all types of vehicles, especially school buses. He asked states and local governments to back up public awareness campaigns with high-visibility enforcement actions. He said the department is establishing an on-line clearinghouse on the risks of distracted driving, aimed especially at young people, which will give them information to help encourage good decisions.

He also pledged to continue the department’s research on how to best combat distracted driving. As part of this pledge, DOT will launch a new demonstration program this year to evaluate techniques that states can use to get the most out of their efforts to end this destructive behavior.

“Keeping Americans safe is without question the federal government’s highest priority--and that includes safety on the road, as well as on mass transit and rail,” LaHood said. “I’m greatly encouraged by the work accomplished at this summit. Working together, we’re going to make sure that traveling in America is as safe as it can possibly be, and I strongly encourage the public to take personal responsibility for their behavior and show a healthy respect for the rules of the road.”

LaHood cited new research findings from a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration study reportedly showing that nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver, and more than half a million were injured.

At the conclusion of the two-day summit, President Obama signed an executive order directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles; when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving; or while driving privately owned vehicles when they’re on official government business. The order also encourages federal contractors and others doing business with the government to adopt and enforce their own policies banning texting while driving on the job. The executive order contains no punitive measures for violators.

The two-day summit brought together 250 safety experts, researchers, industry representatives, elected officials, and members of the public who shared their expertise, experiences, and ideas for reducing distracted-driving behavior and addressed safety risk posed by this growing problem across all modes of transportation. Authoritative speakers from around the nation led interactive sessions on a number of key topics including the extent and impact of distracted driving, current research, regulations, and best practices. Individuals from 49 states participated in the summit via the web.

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