Toyota recalls aside, the debate on distracted driving has been the month’s most compelling consumer issue. Over the past few years, eight states have banned the use of cell phone handsets while driving, and the dangers of such actions have been well documented in the main stream media. This Tuesday’s Pulitzer Prize announcements, for example, honored two New York Times articles exposing the serious risks of texting, typing, and talking in the car. On his blog, Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood applauded these articles in addition to television shows like “Modern Family,” “The Office,” and “Glee,” which have all promoted themes against distracted driving, the number one killer of teenagers.
Though this publicity helps Lahood’s goal to eradicate distracted driving, nationwide legislation against the practice continues to stall in congress.
StreetsBlog reports that this Thursday, the senior Republican on the Senate environment committee Jim Inhofe (R-OK) announced his opposition to a bill that would withhold federal funds from states that did not accept distracted driving limitations. “What I oppose is forcing a one-size-fits-all Washington solution on all states…that withholds highway funds from states that do not enact specific laws,” he said.
Leveraging federal funds to promote highway safety is nothing new. The practice is currently used, for example, to enforce seat belt, drunk driving, and drinking age laws. But although distracted driving led to the death of nearly 600,000 people in 2009 alone, some lawmakers say it’s on a different level than drunk driving and forcing regulations nationwide would violate states’ rights.
But whether you favor big or small government, distracted driving laws have already proven successful where they’ve been implemented. In the first six months after California banned distracted driving, for example, cell phone-related accidents dropped more than fifty percent compared to the six months before. The program has been so successful that California lawmakers hope to increase the violation fines later this year. Last week, the Department of Transportation allocated $600,000 for test programs in Connecticut and New York to monitor the effectiveness of cracking down on distracted driving. In just a week, police officers issued 900 tickets in Syracuse, New York alone.
To pass a federal distracted driving law, it’s clear that staunch proponents and critics will need to compromise. One option is a bill co-sponsored by Texas Republican Kay Bailey Hutchison which would award federal grants as incentives for any state that implemented cell phone regulations. That way, states could impose the laws and receive the financial benefit while avoiding the states’ rights headache. “I don’t think we should get into states rights,” said Hutchison. The Democrats have promised to pass a transportation law this year, so we won’t have to wait long to see the final result.
Photo credit: poka0059 (Creative Commons)