#DFF: Congress may legislate to curb distracted driving

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This post is part of a campaign to prevent distracted driving headed by Be Car Chic and Beltrán About CarsPlease read our launch post from April 29th, and join us on Facebook and Twitter (@BeCarChic and @Cars_blog) to take the Distraction Free Fridays (#DFF) pledge. The following post was written by Melanie Batenchuk and is Part II of the blogs focusing on how policies pushed down from the federal government may ultimately shape how American drivers behave behind the wheel. 

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the overall impact that legislative measures the federal government may take in order to crack down on distracted driving could have on citizens. Read Part I of my “policy” series here. Today, I’m diving a little deeper into the actual policy side of the issue and what’s currently circulating on Capitol Hill. (Appropriate, as it’s only a five minute drive from where I live!)

Members of Congress are moving toward legislating to curb drivers’ bad behind-the-wheel habits. Many have already proposed federal legislation to address distracted driving. Senators Amy Klobuchar (MN) and Charles Schumer (NY) have brought forth bills, and Rep. Eliot Engel (NY-17) introduced legislation in the House in November of 2009. However, the legislation that has gained the most traction is that of Senator John D. (“Jay”) Rockefeller, IV (WV). He introduced the Distracted Driving Prevention Act of 2010 (S. 1938) in October of 2009.

Here are some key highlights of Rockefeller’s bill in the Senate:

  • The bill would order the Department of Transportation (DoT) to reward states that enact laws prohibiting texting and handheld cell phone use while driving.
  • The legislation calls for allocating 50 percent of funds to education and advertising on the subject. The other half would go to traffic safety improvement projects.
  • The measure was successfully passed out of the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation in November of last year; but today, the bill remains stalled in the Senate.

Partially responsible for the delay are activists and state governments that are pushing back on Congress’ attempt to federally regulate mobile device usage in cars because they believe that distracted driving laws should be left up to them. Those who oppose a federal mandate within the automotive community do so because it may force manufacturers to revert to nearly technology-free vehicles.

Regardless of the outcome of a federal bill, the NHTSA, DOT, states, and automakers should ALL continue to work toward a common goal of reducing lost lives as a result of distracted driving. 

Decisions that require changes to vehicles should be market-driven. If a federal law requires manufacturers to remove or disable in-car systems and technologies, then they could feel threatened. Another group who likes to let consumers make most of the decisions is auto dealers. As evidenced by the enormous transition within the industry, car dealers cannot sell people vehicles they do not want to buy. Today, people are choosing cars with the latest and greatest gadgets.

By cracking down on everyone, Congress could be missing the point altogether – to save lives and avoid so many tragedies caused by distracted driving. The desire for people to stay connected to their jobs and their networks is only going to grow. (Just look at how mainstream social networking technologies have become in the past few years – even for Secretary LaHood and most Members of Congress.) Rather than implementing a nationwide law on certain mobile device usage for civilians, why not allow the states to take control – especially since 33 have already take proactive measures and passed laws against texting and talking while driving.

Perhaps part of the solution (in addition to educating both novice and experienced drivers) would be to provide consumers the option to stay connected more safely and hands-free. While not the only manufacturer implementing technologies to keep drivers focused on the road, Ford has made strides with these types of innovations. Earlier this year, the Detroit-based brand announced that all of its 2011 models will come with its MyFord Touch system that can read Facebook status updates and text messages to drivers upon voice command. They even had a spot in this year’s Super Bowl to show the functionality.

What do you think?

Does a federal law dictating when, where, and how citizens may use their personal mobile devices may blur the lines between protecting the people and their personal privacy? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Melanie Batenchuk founded Be Car Chic in 2009 as a way to help consumers make smart decisions when buying and selling their cars. Her prior work at the dealership, trade association and manufacturer levels has provided her a deep understanding of the complex facets within the auto industry, making her a leading woman in her field.