Lobbyists Try to Reframe Distracted Driving Issue

Matt Richtel / The New York Times

A major electronics industry trade group and a Washington lobbying firm have been pushing separate efforts to reframe the debate over the dangers of distracted driving, in response to moves by state legislators and regulators to restrict motorists’ use of cellphones and other devices.

The efforts have angered public safety advocates, some legislators and the Secretary of Transportation, who say such restrictions would save lives.

A document that has been circulating over the last week from a Washington lobbying firm, the Seward Square Group, has fueled the tension. The document, a copy of which was posted by the Web site FairWarning, says the distracted driving issue has been “hijacked” by national transportation authorities and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, who has encouraged motorists to pledge to put down their devices.

The document says that the auto and technology industries have become “collateral damage” in the debate. It urges the creation of a coalition called Drive, composed of car and device makers and wireless companies, but also safety advocates and emergency services personnel.

The public face of the coalition, according to the document, will be Jim Hall, the former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, who works with the Seward lobbying group.

The Drive proposal also bears the name of another lobbying firm, the Eris Group. The Washington Post reported last week that Eris had backed away from the plan after its clients expressed concerns about it, and that Seward had not yet attracted any members to the coalition.

Babak Zafarnia, a public relations executive hired by Seward to be the coalition’s spokesman, said the idea was to emphasize driver education and to focus on broad driver-distraction laws, rather than focusing on the use of particular technologies.

“You can’t anticipate every possible scenario. Distraction is distraction, period,” he said, adding: “Why don’t we modernize the education curriculum to teach drivers to deal with all in-vehicle distractions?”

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who received a copy of the document from a public safety advocate, said he was “alarmed” by what he interpreted as an effort to undermine the creation of tough laws aimed at discouraging drivers from using electronic devices behind the wheel.

The chief distraction problem, he said “is caused by people using cellphones and BlackBerrys, and to correct the behavior, you have to have tough laws with good enforcement.”

Research shows that drivers talking on cellphones are four times likelier to cause a wreck than those who are not talking, and that the risk more than doubles for motorists who are texting.

Mr. LaHood said the template for discouraging this behavior should be laws covering the use of seat belts and drunk driving. The lobbying document depicted that comparison in a negative light, noting: “Similar pilot programs on drunk driving and seat belts ultimately became federal mandates, where government dictates behavior behind the wheel.”

Meanwhile a second industry-led effort backed by the Consumer Electronics Association, a major trade group, has been urging state legislators not to regulate motorists’ use of devices but to instead pass broad laws that cover many kinds of distracted driving.

At a meeting in New York in May of the Council of State Governments, the trade group proposed that states not seek to prohibit the use of certain devices because doing so could hinder innovation or adoption of technologies with the potential to improve safety, like voice-activated phones.

In a position statement, the group also said the real problem was not the use of devices but driver distraction in general.

“Scientific research has demonstrated driver distraction can arise from a wide variety of sources – conversations with passengers, eating, consuming beverages, smoking, tending to children, and other such activities,” according to a policy statement that the association gave to the legislators.

Jason Oxman, a spokesman for the association, said the group was continuing to work on this issue at the state level.

California Senator Joe Simitian, who attended the meeting, led the fight in California to require motorists to use headsets while talking on the phone. He said he was furious about the position of the electronics industry, which he said was trying to undermine legislation focused on the dangers of device use by drivers.

“It’s worse than a non-solution because it suggests somewhat disingenuously that it’s an effort to solve the problem,” he said. He added that wireless carriers in California had opposed his headset requirement for years, arguing instead for increased education and emphasis on driver distraction in general.

“It’s the same debate we had a decade ago with respect to distracted driving,” he said. As the industry argued its case against device-specific regulations, he said, “the number of cellphones increased, the number of minutes increased and the number of deaths on California highways increased.”

Broad-based bans on distraction lack the same teeth as specific ones, he argued. “You can’t hold someone accountable for conduct if you don’t define it with enough precision.”