“The problem is not hands-free,” LaHood said at a DOT news conference Dec. 21. “That is not the big problem (with distracted drivers).”
LaHood was publicly distancing himself from the National Transportation Safety Board’s Dec. 13 call for a blanket ban on cell phones and similar portable electronic devices — regardless of whether hands-free devices are utilized.
To date, all distracted driving laws in the U.S. allow adults to use hands-free devices such as Bluetooth headsets.
NTSB chairwoman Debbie Hersman says researchers haven’t demonstrated that hands-free operation of wireless devices is significantly safer than handheld use. That argument is frequently raised by opponents of distracted driving laws — and some supporters. A major federal study of hands-free safety is expected in 2012.
LaHood did agree, however, that driving and phoning don’t mix: “We need people to take personal responsibility. Put the cellphone in the glove compartment,” he told reporters at the Department of Transportation headquarters.
LaHood’s comments were interpreted by the Wall Street Journal and other media as assurances to the automobile and wireless industries that the DOT would not pursue a flat-out ban on cell phones. The plan for a national cell phone ban also would be a hot potato for the Obama Administration in an election year. The NTSB is an independent entity, while LaHood and the DOT work for the president.
The DOT has been working with some automobile makers who are developing Internet-ready dashboard systems. The NTSB call for a national ban did not include dashboard systems with wireless capabilities, however.
As for the NTSB, LaHood said: “If other people want to work on hands-free, so be it.”
Editorial: “Ban all cell phone use by drivers”