Ray LaHood sticks up for hands-free devices for drivers

Score one for freedom. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood yesterday checked the zeal of the National Transportation Safety Board, which last week called for a nationwide ban on hands-free cell phone devices for drivers.

LaHood, who has made distracted driving his signature safety issue, said the focus should be on texting and hand-held cell calls, not fast-growing new technology that allows drivers to talk while keeping their hands on the wheel.

“That is not the big problem in America,” LaHood told reporters. “Most people don’t put Bluetooth or Sync in their cars because they can’t afford it. Everybody has a cell phone in their hand and it’s held up to their ear while they’re driving.” …

“Our efforts are good laws and good enforcement, and personal responsibility,” LaHood said. “We’ll work with anyone who wants to get on board.”

Ahh … good old-fashioned personal responsibility. How nice to hear it invoked from the most unlikely quarter!

Meanwhile, the folks at ITWorld.com are not impressed with Mr. LaHood — or with the individual’s ability to govern himself. They suggest the secretary rejected the NTSB’s proposed ban because he is beholden to automakers who are already heavily invested in hands-free systems. IT World reporter Chris Nerney writes:

[H]ands-free is becoming an emerging industry, with automakers such as Ford installing its Sync hands-free system in newer vehicles, so industry pressure will remain on lawmakers to ignore or dismiss research that shows hands-free devices also distract drivers.

The use of handheld devices while driving currently is outlawed in nine states and Washington, D.C., while 34 states plus D.C. ban texting by drivers.

These laws are routinely ignored, so it’s not likely that a nationwide ban would be effectively enforceable. Our only hope for reducing the growing dangers of distracted driving is the widespread individual application of common sense, judgment and self-control.

So, really, we’re screwed.

Oh, ye of little faith! Frankly, this decision from Mr. LaHood makes me want to stash my silenced cell phone in my glove compartment every time I drive just to prove we people do care to preserve our own lives. Yes, distracted driving is a problem — it killed more than 3,000 people in the U.S. this year and studies show hands-free devices can be distractions, too — but it’s one that should be addressed at the individual or local level. In other words, there’s no call for a national ban on either handheld or hands-free devices.

One last thought: Drivers were sometimes distracted before the days of cell phones. A particularly engrossing conversation with a passenger, squabbling siblings in the backseat, persistent worries about work or family — each could distract a driver. Should we ban all that, too?