When Ray LaHood took office in 2009 as secretary of the Department of Transportation, 18 states had passed laws to fight distracted driving. When he resigned in January of this year, that number had more than doubled to 41.
But the former transportation secretary is hardly finished with his crusade: He wants to see all 50 states outlaw the use of devices at the wheel, and insists that a federal law outlawing texting while driving is needed in order to make a significant impact. In 2011, more than 3,000 people were killed by distracted drivers, according to statistics from the DOT.
“All of us are hooked on our cell phones. We think we cannot live without them now,” LaHood said. “If I were still secretary, I would be encouraging senators and House members to introduce legislation and to hold hearings. This has to be one of the number one safety items on people’s agendas if they really want to save lives and make roadways safer.”
For a Huffington Post series on Distracted Driving, LaHood spoke with us about completely disabling drivers’ phones, implementing tougher regulations, and nixing the use of Google Glass in the driver’s seat.
What do you consider the most effective way to eliminate distracted driving?
To me, the key to tackling distracted driving comes down to three things: good laws, good enforcement and getting people to take personal responsibility. People have to recognize that texting and driving is dangerous and take responsibility for putting their phones in a place where they can’t be tempted while they’re driving their car.
What could tech companies be doing to help combat distracted driving?
Devices need to be disabled while the driver is driving the car. There are a number of people who came to our office who have developed technology to disable phones in the car, but the question becomes, what happens to the other people in the automobile? That still has to be solved. They just have to perfect it so that it doesn’t disable technology for everyone in the car.
So part of your ideal solution would be for drivers’ phones to essentially be bricks while they’re driving -- completely disabled?
Absolutely. It’s a way to change people’s behavior and to give them an opportunity to be disciplined.
Automakers have started introducing voice-controlled infotainment systems that, in some cases, offer access to apps like Pandora, Facebook, Yelp, Google and Siri. You’ve said these don’t meet your standards for safety. Why?
I don’t want people downloading music or trying to look at Facebook while they’re driving their car. That’s dangerous, that’s a distraction. Anything like that I’m against. Any technology that’s accessible while you’re driving is dangerous and I don’t think people should be allowed to do that.
These infotainment systems are currently shaped by carmakers’ voluntary regulations, and the DOT’s nonbinding recommendations. These are all suggestions, not requirements. Will that be enough, or do you think binding regulation is necessary?
No, it’s not enough, but it’s as much as we could do during the time I was there. If I were there -- and I hope [current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx] considers this -- I’d really be toughening up the rules. In order to try and persuade car companies with a strong rule that tells them they have to do certain things, that takes more time and it’s a more delicate issue. So the answer is yes, of course there does need to be regulation [of infotainment systems], and it needs to be done in cooperation with the car companies.
What do you think will be required of the Department of Transportation over the next few years to continue the momentum in fighting distracted driving?
If I were there, I’d be on Capitol Hill trying to find friends to introduce bills and trying to find chairmen to hold hearings that would draw attention to passing a national law -- a national law similar to the one that turned the tide on drunk driving and seat belts. As somebody in the cabinet who works with members of Congress, I hope that it will become one of Secretary Foxx’s legislative priorities to get a bill passed.
What could a federal law do to combat distracted driving that state laws cannot?
A federal law draws attention to distracted driving at the national stage. It sends a message to the states that haven’t passed laws. And if you look at .08 [blood alcohol content limit] and seat belt laws, some of it is tied to grants that are given to states. Part of a national law could maybe say, “We’re going to reward states that passed good laws and we’ll reward law enforcement for enforcing the laws.” That’s the way you put teeth into the law, and that’s how police started paying attention to writing tickets for people who were not wearing seat belts or for people who were above a .08 blood alcohol content.
A few weeks ago, a woman in California became the first person to get a ticket while driving with Google Glass. Yet some have touted Glass as a safer, hands-free alternative to the cell phone. Do you think people should be allowed to drive with it on?
No, I don’t. Google Glass is not the solution to distracted driving. It’s another distraction that people should not be involved with.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.