The bill provides about $78 million in incentives for states that ban text messaging for all drivers and the use of handheld cell phones by young drivers. States that do not would not share in this additional funding but would not lose existing funding.
States receiving the distracted driving grants from the U.S. Department of Transportation will be required to spend some of the money on enforcement and education. The DOT already has been funding distracted driving crackdowns in several states as “research” into possible solutions to the problem.
The transportation bill was approved late Friday — the result of an unusual compromise for this fractured Congress necessitated by a weekend deadline.
Earlier in the week, Rep. Diane Black, R-Tenn., led the House opposition to the distracted driving grants, already approved by senators.
The idea of federal incentives to fight distracted driving was not new. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., left, pushed for the grants as chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. “Cars and trucks with a distracted driver are deadly weapons and we have a responsibility to get them off the road,” he said while first floating the plan (unsuccessfully) in 2009. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., proposed similar federal incentives.
The transportation bill represents more than $100 billion in spending, but the distracted driving incentives’ relatively minor $78 million tab led to sharp debate between supportive Democrats — who cited “a growing crisis” on the nation’s roads — and resistant Republicans who were wary of further government intrusion into state policies.
Citing the 10th amendment, Rep. Black insisted “the federal government should not be manipulating state law through taxpayer funded distracted driving grants.” She succeeded in winning House approval of a motion to instruct to spike the distracted driving provision OK’d by the Senate. (Video below.)
“This is about protecting states rights under the 10th amendment of the Constitution,” Black said.
“What is best for the state of Massachusetts may not be best for the state of Montana,” Black told the House, calling for more federal studies of “all forms of distracted driving.” Black, a nurse and former state senator in Tennessee, said she voted three times for distracted driving measures in her home state.
In the end, the DOT grants did not appear to be a sticking point as Republicans and Democrats reached agreement Friday just before a pressing weekend deadline.
Late Friday, President Obama approved emergency funding tied to the bill that allowed student loans to remain at current rates instead of doubling. The loan rate was due to expire Sunday, along with various transportation project funding.