Warning labels on cellphones proposed

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 22, 2010; A2

Cigarette packages and alcoholic beverages carry labels warning that they may be hazardous to your health. Should cellphones come with them, too?

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood proposed the idea Tuesday at a conference he convened in Washington to address the issue he has made his pet passion: distracted driving.

The labels would warn that using a cellphone while driving is dangerous.

"That's something I just thought of while I was sitting there," LaHood said when the group broke for lunch. "It's just common sense to me. I'm going to talk to the [cellphone] industry about it."

LaHood announced last week that research by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that distracted driving led to 5,474 highway deaths and 448,000 accidents last year, which was 16 percent of the national total.

Asked whether such warning labels should be required in all new cars, LaHood said, "I want to work with the car industry on a few other things before I get to that."

In his opening remarks, LaHood scolded the auto industry for turning cars into entertainment centers.

He said automakers have supported bans on text messaging and handheld cellphone use while driving, but have introduced other distractions.

"In recent days and weeks, we've seen news stories about carmakers adding technology in vehicles that lets drivers update Facebook, surf the Web or do any number of other things instead of driving safely," he said. "Features that pull drivers' hands, eyes and attention away from the road are distractions."

LaHood said he would meet with car companies to discuss new safety guidelines for technology that allows drivers to access the Internet and social networks such as Twitter and Facebook.

"Together, let's put safety before entertainment," he told the gathering of several hundred politicians, safety advocates and business leaders.

John Maddox, research director for NHTSA, said dealing with the cellphone issue now may head off larger problems in the future.

"What we see coming is a technology explosion," he said. "There is a strong customer pull for those communication devices to be drawn into the car. They think the car is another mobile device, with which we strongly disagree."

LaHood kicked off his second major conference on distracted driving with the announcement that in-state truck drivers who transport hazardous waste will be banned from sending text messages.

The move closed a loophole in a year-old ban on texting by truckers and commercial bus drivers, extending the prohibition to include intrastate truckers who deliver gasoline, propane and other hazardous materials.

LaHood also launched a more concerted effort to get private employers to adopt restrictions on cellphone use by their employees. President Obama a year ago prohibited federal workers from texting while behind the wheel of government vehicles, and from using government-issued cellphones to text even while driving their own cars.

There was thick representation in the crowded ballroom from corporations that have developed technology intended to restrict access to cellphones and text messaging while driving. Several of them and an advocate from a nonprofit group that favors a technological solution raised the issue with LaHood.

"If that can be part of the solution, we'll accept it," LaHood responded. "We're waiting for the technology companies to come forward and say, 'Here's the technology.' "

Even then, he said, "good laws and good law enforcement" are the remedy.

Coupling that with publicity about police crackdowns would have the same effect that the "Click It or Ticket" enforcement campaigns had in encouraging the use of seat belts, LaHood said.

An estimated 270 million cellphones are in use, and the NHTSA has estimated that 11 percent of drivers are using them at any given moment.

"I don't believe that everybody's on board yet with the fact that it's a real problem," said Madelene Milano, a media consultant who served on one panel.

A driver survey by State Farm Insurance last year showed that 62 percent of drivers said they talked on the phones, 23 percent said they read text messages and 16 percent said they sent them. There was a direct correlation between those numbers and attitudes on prohibition: 37 percent said they would support a ban on phone use, while 77 percent would back a ban on text messaging.

Finding the political will to invade cellphone users' sense of entitlement may require a broader public consensus of the danger.

A group founded after LaHood's first conference on distracted driving a year ago has utilized an effective tactic pioneered by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, humanizing the issue by presenting families traumatized by the consequences. Called Focus Driven, the group introduced several victims' families at a lunch-hour news conference.

Gina Harris said the police showed up at her front door in Oklahoma after midnight in December 2006 with news that her 19-year-old daughter had died in a collision. Later, one of her daughter's close friends said they were conversing by cellphone when the crash occurred.

"Brittanie wasn't texting," Harris said. "She was talking. It's just as bad."

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