Transportation secretary LaHood enlists MIT in fight against distracted driving

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 3, 2010; 5:28 PM

Some of the nation's brightest minds are being enlisted in the crusade to make America's highways safer by getting drivers to turn off their cellphones.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has challenged the minds at the fabled Massachusetts Institute of Technology to figure out how to refine technology so that a driver's cellphone can be disabled without blocking the cellphones of passengers.

LaHood has been on a self-described "rampage" against distracted driving for more than a year, urging drivers not to use their cellphones, send text messages or engage in any other form of distracting electronic behavior.

That effort, highlighted so far by a "Distracted Driving Summit" that he hosted in September, has been bolstered by a steady stream of studies indicating the danger of cellphone use while driving, including data that show that hands-free cellphones are just as risky.

Those studies have found that eight in 10 drivers talk while behind the wheel, that cellphones are a factor in an estimated 342,000 auto accident injuries each year, and that the cost in property damage, lost wages, medical bills and lost lives amounts to $43 billion annually.

"And that's why today I'm appealing to the MIT community, among America's best and brightest, for help," LaHood said in a blog post Monday. "I'm asking them to use their prodigious research skills to help us end this epidemic."

LaHood said he has posed a series of questions about cellphone risk to MIT experts:

How can we best communicate the dangers of this practice to drivers? Can MIT researchers develop an app that blocks a driver's distracting devices without blocking the cellphones of passengers? Can MIT engineers help devise roadside methods of discovering a driver who is playing with electronics rather than focusing on the road?

The last question holds particular importance, LaHood said, because law officers say it's challenging to detect people who are using an electronic device held in their lap.

LaHood traveled to the MIT campus in Cambridge, Mass., to deliver his appeal for help in person. He also called on the students and faculty to build a car that doesn't crash, design a vehicle that emits zero greenhouse gases, and engineer a green revolution that changes the way energy is generated and consumed.

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