Verizon gives nod to no-texting bill

But governors' group says bill would be unenforceable and would risk loss of federal highway funds

Federal legislation that would require states to ban texting while driving sparked differing reactions from wireless carriers and an industry group today, with some preferring that states handle the matter.

The bill, called the ALERT Drivers Act (for Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act ), was introduced yesterday by four U.S. senators and would require states to bar drivers of cars or trucks from sending text or e-mail messages or risk losing 25% of their federal highway funds each year that they fail to comply.

A similar strategy was used successfully by Congress in 1984 to require states to raise the minimum drinking age to 21.

One lobbyist who works for an organization of state officials and asked not to be named, said the bill is destined to "go nowhere since a 25% reduction in highway funds would devastate the economy, and that's not something we need right now."

In the wireless industry, however, Verizon Wireless quickly jumped yesterday to support the ALERT legislation, and noted it had been the first to support hands-free driving laws in various states as early as 2000.

Meanwhile, the CTIA, an industry group that represents all the major wireless carriers, said it supports state legislative remedies but did not comment on the ALERT measure.

"We support federal legislation to ban texting and e-mailing while driving," said Steven Zipperstein, general counsel at Verizon Wireless in a statement. "This approach is a logical extension of our previous breaks with other wireless companies to support statewide legislation banning texting and e-mailing while driving." He went on to say Verizon applauds the four senate sponsors of the bill, Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.) and Kay Hagen (D-N.C.)

Currently, 14 states have various laws that ban texting while driving, which is viewed by various research studies as greatly impairing a driver's ability to drive safely. One recent study found that the risk of getting into an accident is 23 times higher when texting while driving.

The CTIA said its member companies believe text messaging while driving is "incompatible with safe driving." However, it said it supports "state legislative remedies to solve this issue," and added, "but simply passing a law will not change behavior."

CTIA also emphasized its belief in better driver's education to focus on reducing distracted driving.

A CTIA spokeswoman said she couldn't say whether there was wide disparity among the carriers over the issue.

AT&T issued a brief statement saying it hasn't reviewed the ALERT legislation but is "supportive of legislation to prohibit texting while driving." The carrier added that AT&T has "long advised customers not to use a phone to send messages while driving."

Sprint Nextel Inc. spokesman John Taylor said the company also hasn't staked a position on the ALERT legislation. He added that the bill is likely to provoke a needed debate on the topic, and might put a greater focus on the need for more driver's education, which is generally no longer taught in public high schools.

"We're not opposed to legislation banning texting that has come before the states, but we're not sure it's effective," Taylor said. He said the same question of effectiveness holds true for laws requiring hands-free devices for drivers who talk on cell phones. Taylor said police are enforcing reckless driving laws, but the presence of more laws would not replace the need for better driver training nationwide.

"The goal is to stop bad behavior," Taylor said, noting that Sprint has provided financial support for its Focus on Driving education initiative since 2003, which relies on teenagers to teach each other about the dangers of distracted driving. "We've learned that the best educator is a peer," he noted.

The American Automobile Association and other groups have focused on better training as well, noting that some countries in Europe require hundreds of hours of driving practice before a license is issued, while some U.S. states require none.

With such differences of opinion, the legislation is sure to provoke more discussion, especially because of the financial repercussions states would face with the penalties.

A spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association said it wouldn't support the ALERT legislation because of the financial sanctions on the states that don't have laws in place. A statement from the association said that it has not supported a complete ban "because of the difficulty of enforcing such laws."

However, the governors' group urged states to ban all non-emergency use of cell phones for voice and texting for new drivers, including teen drivers. To enable better reporting of crashes that involve cell phones, the governors group also urged including a category for cell phone distraction on a crash investigation form. Thirty states already include such information, it said.

The governors' group also urged the federal government to fund a media campaign to alert the public about the dangers of distracted driving, and to continue to fund research in the area, including the effectiveness of new technologies that could reduce or eliminate distractions.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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