The author of a nationwide bill to ban texting while driving wants a new federal recommendation that states adopt their own separate laws to go even further, arguing that all Americans deserve the same amount of protection through a single, simple, nationwide standard.
“We can’t wait for multiple states to act, and we can’t afford to have a patchwork of laws where some Americans are more protected than others,” said Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-Mineola, author of the Safe Drivers Act of 2011. “The simplest, safest solution would be a single national standard, like we have for blood alcohol content. Texting while driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving, and getting more and more common every day. All Americans deserve to be safe no matter where they’re traveling.”
Today, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states adopt bans on the use of mobile devices while operating a motor vehicle. Rep. McCarthy is calling for passage of the Safe Drivers Act, her bill to ban handheld mobile device use while driving on a nationwide level.
The bill, H.R. 2333, focuses on two primary efforts. First, it directs the secretary of transportation to establish minimum regulations that ban the use of hand-held mobile devices on a public road while operating a moving or idling motor vehicle, except in the case of an emergency. There are exclusions, including voice-operated, vehicle-integrated devices, as well as voice-operated GPS systems.
The bill also requires the Department of Transportation to conduct a study on distracted driving, focusing particularly on the issue of cognitive distraction and the impact of distraction on young and inexperienced drivers. In two years, the DOT must report the findings of this study to Congress and provide recommendations for revising the minimum distracted driving prohibitions and penalties states must comply with.
The penalty for not complying with the DOT’s minimum standards within two years of enactment would be a withholding of 25 percent of a state’s federal highway transportation funding.
The legislation is modeled after the nation’s federal Blood Alcohol Content standard, the violation of which also results in a withholding of federal transportation funds (though no state has been in violation of the federal BAC standard). States that are penalized can actually receive their funds as soon as they are in compliance with federal law.
The Safe Drivers Act of 2011 has been endorsed by Verizon Wireless, the Ford Motor Company and the Chrysler Corporation.
Today’s news comes a week after new federal statistics showing that texting-while-driving increased by large margins in the last year.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week (NHTSA release, AP story) that a survey of 6,000 drivers showed that texting and other handheld phone use while driving increased by 50 percent in 2010. Eighteen percent of all drivers reported using a handheld phone while driving; that number jumps dramatically, to about 50 percent, for drivers age 21 to 24.
“The proliferation of smartphones brings more distracted driving, and government needs to respond to keep our roads safe,” Rep. McCarthy said. “With some basic commonsense rules that are already in place in some parts of the country, we can reduce injuries and save lives in America. The House Republican Majority should help make our roads safer by passing the Safe Drivers Act.”
The new survey also offers additional insights into driver attitudes and practices when it comes to texting and cell phone use while behind the wheel. For example, the NHTSA finds that “While most drivers said they are willing to answer a call and many will send a text while driving, almost all of these same drivers reported that they would feel very unsafe as a passenger if their driver was sending or receiving text messages.”
With a patchwork of laws in different states, including some states with no laws whatsoever limiting cell phone use while driving, distracted driving is rapidly becoming a deadly problem across the nation.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, using a cell phone makes a driver four times more likely to be in an accident that causes injury.
According to the Governor’s Highway Safety Association, nine states, Washington D.C. and the Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving.
No state bans all cell phone use (handheld and hands-free) for all drivers, but many prohibit all cell phone use by certain drivers. For example, 30 states and D.C. ban all cell phone use by “novice” (younger) drivers.
Thirty-five states, D.C. and Guam ban text messaging for all drivers, and an additional 7 states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, immediately after New York banned cell phone use while driving in 2001, cell phone use declined an estimated 47 percent. Since then over time, handheld cell phone use by New York Drivers is down an estimated 24 percent.