By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 27, 2010; A07
On Tuesday, the federal government formally barred truckers and bus drivers from sending text messages while behind the wheel, putting its imprimatur on a prohibition embraced by many large trucking and transportation companies.
"We want the drivers of big rigs and buses and those who share the roads with them to be safe," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "This is an important safety step, and we will be taking more to eliminate the threat of distracted driving."
LaHood has made the effort to curtail driver distractions a centerpiece of his tenure as the nation's top transportation official. Some saw his announcement as a step that might ultimately fuel a push to ban cellphone use by all drivers.
LaHood's announcement followed a study released in July by Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute that found that when truckers text, they are 23 times as likely to be involved in a crash or close call.
Also Tuesday, a group of senators unveiled legislation that seeks to bar all texting while driving.
"This is a giant step forward for safety on our roads, but we must do more," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of LaHood's action. "We need the administration to support our ban, which does the same thing for cars and mass transit that they are now doing for trucks and buses."
Although both houses of Congress are considering bills restricting texting and 19 states have banned the practice, LaHood said that existing rules on truckers and bus drivers give him the authority to issue the prohibition. LaHood said drivers of commercial vehicles caught texting could be fined up to $2,750.
"It's an important first step," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, a coalition of state highway safety directors. "It's will start a cultural shift away from texting and cellphone use. We'd like to see a ban on all cellphone use by drivers of commercial vehicles."
Enforcement of LaHood's ban is so problematic, however, that it might prove more symbolic than practical.
"The enforcement problem here is enormous," said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It's not clear this is going to make any difference on the road in terms of crashes."
Last year, President Obama banned federal employees from texting while driving government vehicles and from texting in their own cars if they use government-issued phones or are on official business.
With LaHood leading the effort, supported by mounting evidence of the dangers, Adkins said that an effort to ban cellphone use by all drivers could be proposed this year.
"At some point, we'll have to address that issue," Adkins said. "We think 2010 will be the year when we do something about distracted driving. We can't remember a secretary ever taking the issue of highway safety so seriously."
In announcing the ban, LaHood mentioned data compiled last year by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. The agency said that texting drivers take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 out of every six seconds. At 55 mph, he said, that means a texting driver travels the length of a football field, including the end zones, without looking at the road.