U.S. Transportation Chief Calls Meeting to Discuss 'Distracted Driving'

A driver talks on a cellphone while traveling on H Street in the District, which is illegal. The city requires hands-free devices, and texting is banned.
A driver talks on a cellphone while traveling on H Street in the District, which is illegal. The city requires hands-free devices, and texting is banned. (By Richard A. Lipski -- Washington Post)
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By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 13, 2009

It is probably safe to assume that the last three things Tiffany DeGroft thought of that cloudy October morning were her boyfriend, her cellphone and the picket fence that would cause her death.

She spent the last moments of her life swapping text messages with him as she drove down Braddock Road in Centreville, police said. He was upset. He had been carded by a store clerk when he went to buy cigarettes. His last text message read: "Why the [expletive] aren't you answering me now?"

About that moment, the road curved right, and DeGroft's 2002 Jaguar went straight. The car crossed the center line and went into the oncoming lane. DeGroft apparently looked up but hit the brakes too late, plowing through trees, hitting a picket fence and smashing into a shed. Investigators said a piece of fence shattered the window and killed her.

"We found the phone on the floorboard in the open position," said James Banachoski, a Fairfax County detective who handles investigations of fatal traffic accidents. "I suspect she was actually reading the text."

"Distracted driving" is becoming a cause celebre, with more states banning texting and some legislators pondering whether to bar cellphone use by drivers outright. The District and six states require hands-free devices. Texting has been banned in the District and 17 states, and U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he will convene a meeting Sept. 30 to formulate "concrete steps . . . to make drivers think twice about taking their eyes off the road for any reason."

LaHood's biggest challenge will be to find a way to enforce unpopular restrictions on drivers in love with their cellphones. One survey found that eight in 10 drivers talk on their phones while behind the wheel. LaHood is counting on frightening numbers -- cellphone use is a factor in an estimated 342,000 auto accident injuries and costs $43 billion each year in property damage, lost wages, medical bills and loss of life -- to help win support.

"The public is sick and tired of people being distracted and causing accidents," he said last week.

Little more than a generation ago, cigarettes and push-button radios were just about all drivers had to tear their eyes from the road. Now cellphones, coffee cups, CDs, Global Positioning System devices and televisions compete for the attention of people behind the wheel.

Text messaging and cellphones have gotten most of the attention lately, and it might take LaHood's federal influence to wean the nation from them. Almost 90 percent of Americans own cellphones. The National Safety Council has estimated that 100 million drivers use cellphones, and another study concluded that 1 million people are chatting behind the wheel at any given moment.

Few states were willing to reduce to .08 the blood-alcohol level that defines drunken driving until their federal highway funds were threatened, and Congress might need to wield that stick again if unpopular restrictions are sought on cellphone use. New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced a bill to withhold 25 percent of federal highway funds from states each year unless they ban texting.

"Studies show [texting] is far more dangerous than talking on a phone while driving or driving while drunk," Schumer said after the bill was filed. "With this new legislation, drivers will finally be held responsible for dangerous behavior that puts the public at risk."

When states take on the issue, legislators run up against lobbyists for a lucrative industry and constituents who are wedded to their phones. For an example of the resulting compromises, look to Virginia, where a law banning drivers from texting took effect July 1.

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