The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says there were approximately 3,000 fatal traffic accidents last year because of a distracted driver. Using a cell phone while driving delays reaction time and is comparable to driving to having .08 blood alcohol level.
Ray LaHood, the U.S. Transportation Secretary, has proposed a federal law to ban talking on a cell phone or texting while driving any type of vehicle on any road in the nation.
Tough federal legislation is the only way to deal with what he called a "national epidemic," he said at a distracted-driving summit in San Antonio, Texas, that drew doctors, advocates and government officials, according to a Reuters report.
LaHood said it is important for the police to have "the opportunity to write tickets when people are foolishly thinking they can drive safely or use a cell phone and text and drive."
LaHood has previously criticized behind-the-wheel use of cell phones and other devices, but calling for a federal law prohibiting the practice takes his effort to a new level.
But Gary Biller, president of the National Motorists Association, said laws banning specific actions like talking on a phone or texting are not necessary because those actions are already covered by existing distracted-driving laws. It would be more productive, he said, to invest resources in campaigns that discourage inattentive driving in general.
"It shouldn't matter if the driver is distracted by a conversation with another vehicle passenger, tuning the radio, eating a snack, or talking on a cell phone," Biller said in a statement. "Existing laws cover all those distractions and more."
LaHood said, however, he was not as concerned about people who eat, apply makeup, or perform other distracting activities in cars because "not everyone does that."
"But everyone has a cell phone and too many of us think it is OK to talk on our phones while we are driving," he said at the summit, sponsored by insurance company USAA, the Texas Department of Transportation and Shriners Hospitals for Children.
In September 2010, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) released a report on distracted driving fatalities for 2009. The NHTSA considers distracted driving to include some of the following as distractions: other occupants in the car, eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting radio, adjusting environmental control, reaching for object in car, and cell phone use.
In 2009 in the U.S. there was a reported 5,474 people killed by distracted drivers. Of those 995 were considered to be killed by drivers distracted by cell phones.
"It used to be that if an officer pulled you over for drunk driving, he would pat you on the back, maybe call you a cab or take you home, but he wouldn't arrest you," LaHood said. "Now that has changed, and the same enforcement can work for people who talk on cell phones while driving."
Thirty-eight states currently have some kind of ban on cell phone use while driving as well as all U.S. Department of Defense Installations worldwide. Internationally 64 countries also have bans on cell phone use while driving.
In the United Kingdom drivers who are distracted by cell use are being prosecuted similarly to speeding. In Japan mobile phone use while driving is prohibited including use of hands-free devices. New Zealand has instituted similar laws.
LaHood said his department was researching the effect that hands-free devices and new systems like Ford Motor Company's Sync have on distracting drivers. He said he has called the CEOs of major car companies and encouraged them to "think twice" before placing too many Internet-features on cars.