A two-day Distracted Driving Summit in Washington concluded Thursday, after experts raised multiple thorny questions on how to reduce cell phone usage and texting while driving, with a big emphasis placed on driver and employer responsibility.
After mentioning that President Obama had just signed an executive order that forbids all federal employees from engaging in texting while driving government vehicles, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urged private sector employers to avoid calling workers on their cell phones as they drive home from work.
LaHood also announced that his department would ban text messaging altogether, restrict cell phone use by truck and interstate bus drivers and disqualify school bus drivers from receiving commercial driver's licenses if they have been convicted of texting while driving.
His department also plans to make permanent some restrictions placed on the use of cell phones in rail operations. However, he did not offer further details.
"Employers need to change their mindset, too, and if you know your staff has left for the day, do not expect them to instantly return a phone call or IM when they'e driving home," LaHood said in a concluding address.
Obama's executive order, signed Thursday, also bars federal workers from texting with any government-owned electronic equipment while they are driving, and bars any texting while driving their own privately owned vehicles while on official government business, LaHood said.
The executive order "shows the federal government is leading by example" and "sends a signal that distracted driving [is] dangerous," he added.
But LaHood was noncommittal about proposed laws, including a U.S. Senate bill that would require states to ban texting while driving or face partial loss of federal highway funding.
LaHood showed a willingness to work on legislation, saying, "We will work with Congress and state and local governments to ensure than the issue of distracted driving is appropriately addressed."
He also said "high visibility enforcement" of drunk driving and seat belt laws had been effective and could work with distracted driving and related laws.
But LaHood seemed to focus on drivers' personal responsibility as his key message. "Driving while distracted should feel wrong, just like driving without a seat belt or [while] drinking," he said. "We are not going to break all bad habits, but will raise awareness."
LaHood said driving while using a cell phone or texting is "personally irresponsible and socially unacceptable behavior, but in the end we won't make the problem go away by just passing laws ... We cannot legislate behavior to get results to improve road safety."
"People need to use common sense and show common decency to other drivers," he said.
He called distracted driving "an epidemic" and referred to the summit as a "tremendous start ... that will lead all of us to save lives and save injuries." At the start of the conference, LaHood said that in 2008 nearly 6,000 people died in the U.S. in crashes involving a distracted or inattentive driver. That figure is about one-sixth of the 37,000 deaths last year resulting from motor vehicle accidents.
LaHood and several of the panelists who spoke urged parents to restrict their teenage children from using cell phones while driving.
However, the value of specialized training programs to teach the dangers of distracted driving came under question by some of the assembled experts.
Adrian Lund, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, cast a blunt criticism of such efforts, citing years of research. "It would be wonderful to have training programs for teens to recognize the risks they take [by texting while driving], and change their driving dramatically," he said.
"But our experience with education programs for teens or even ticketed drivers who take remedial training ... is that essentially the programs have no effect," Lund said. "What they learn is to avoid tickets, but not typically to avoid crashes."
Lund supported calls by several experts at the summit to find new methods that can reduce crashes caused by distracted driving. "We need to find out what works ... All this education doesn't do much good," he said.