By Kim Hart - 10/28/09 11:24 PM EDT
A bipartisan bill introduced Wednesday would provide incentives for states to ban drivers 18 years of age and under from using their cell phones.
The legislation, introduced in the Senate, seeks to curb deaths and injuries due to so-called distracted driving. The measure attracted a fair amount of support during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Wednesday, but some lawmakers on the panel said legislation should be left up to the states.
People “are driving lethal weapons,” and sending text messages while doing so is “the grossest kind of negligence, yet it is part of our lives,” Rockefeller said during the hearing. “I’m skeptical of being able to change behavior simply by passing a law. You’ve got to make people stop, maybe through the use of technology.”
Rockefeller said more than 812,000 drivers are using their cell phones while behind the wheel at any given moment. Last year, 5,800 people were killed due to distracted drivers.
The legislation would create a grant program for states that enact laws prohibiting texting and cell phone use while driving. To qualify for the grants, states would have to enact a ban on texting while driving and impose significant penalties for drivers who cause an accident.
States would also have to limit cell phone use to devices with hands-free capabilities, and drivers under 18 years old would not be able to use a cell phone at all. The grants would be paid for with surplus funds from the existing seatbelt safety program.
"I’m hopeful we won't limit these rules just for teenagers," said Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), who has backed the bill. "There are many politicians out there who are texting, and they’re not teenagers."
Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the ranking member of the Commerce Committee, and Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.), David Vitter (R-La.) and Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) are also sponsors of the bill.
Hutchison, who has launched a gubernatorial bid, said she supports the legislation because it allows states to make their own decisions about the nature and extent of action against distracted driving.
“While some have pushed for specific mandates on the states, I disagree,” she said. “States should not be threatened with the loss of federal highway funds that have been paid for by their drivers. We can better accomplish these goals through incentives to individual states rather than heavy-handed mandates from the federal government.”
Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) said he thinks states should take the lead in developing such laws, adding that federal intervention could make the laws too broad.
“I think eating a hamburger is a lot more distracting than talking on the phone,” he said. “Maybe we should include eating a hamburger in this legislation.”
At least 18 states already have passed laws to crack down on cell phone use while driving.
Ray LaHood, secretary of the Transportation Department, said an education campaign combined with strong enforcement would help combat what he called “a deadly epidemic.” LaHood has spearheaded broader efforts to reduce cell phone use while driving or operating other vehicles, including trains and airplanes.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski told the committee that technology could be a helpful tool in reducing distracted driving, but that it would likely only be a piece of the solution.
"Might existing voice-to-text technologies be used to improve safety, or are even these technologies too dangerous to be used in the car?" Genachowski said during the hearing. He said more research was needed to find out which technologies would be most effective.
Rockefeller appeared to grow frustrated by the levity of the conversation.
“This hearing is not going the way I wanted it to go,” he said. “It doesn’t have the sense of urgency I was hoping for. … I don’t think there’s time to wait on this. I don’t really give a hoot about states’ rights or federal rights on this one. I care about results.”
The wireless industry has been generally supportive of federal efforts to curb cell phone use while driving. CTIA, the wireless industry’s trade association, has co-branded a public service campaign with the National Safety Council called “on the road, off the phone.”
“We are particularly pleased that the legislation includes a significant educational component since … legislative prohibitions alone are unlikely to solve this problem,” said CTIA President Steve Largent.