Barack Obama does love his Blackberry. But, he understands, sometimes you gotta “just say no” to your favorite electronic devices. And he is using the power of the presidency to combat a growing menace on the roads: “distracted driving,” often caused by motorists sending text messages or talking on cellphones while behind the wheel.
The Obama administration hopes to make these practices as taboo as drunk driving and not wearing a seat belt.
In an executive order signed late Wednesday and released Thursday, President Obama banned federal workers from texting while driving government cars or otherwise operating a vehicle while out on government business. In addition, the Department of Transportation plans to institute rules that would limit the use of mobile devices by rail operators and ban their use by interstate truckers.
The Department of Transportation just held a two-day summit aimed at highlighting and curtailing distracted driving. In 2008, 5,780 people died in car crashes where driver distraction was a reported cause, the department reported. That figure represents 16 percent of all fatal vehicle deaths, up from 12 percent in 2007. Some 515,000 people were injured in “distracted driver” crashes last year.
A group of Senate Democrats have teamed up on legislation that employs a time-honored method of twisting states’ arms on policy: threaten their highway money. In the bill, states that don’t ban texting or emailing while driving would lose 25 percent of their annual highway funds.
Already, 18 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving. Seven states plus D.C. ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving.
But if D.C. is any guide – where this correspondent does a lot of driving – the laws are barely enforced. What the Obama administration hopes to do is push the issue hard and loudly. At the two-day conference, families of victims of distracted-driving accidents pleaded for safer practices and government policies to support them.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he puts his Blackberry in the glove compartment of his car, so he’ll resist temptation. But the efforts of individuals, or the presidential bully pulpit, can only go so far.
“Our opportunities for solving this really lie with Congress," Secretary LaHood tells National Public Radio.
Follow us on Twitter.