US Electronics Firms Concerned About Distracted-Driving Laws

WASHINGTON (Dow Jones)

The Obama administration's push to curb distracted driving is raising concerns in the electronics industry about how far the government will go to restrict the use of electronic gadgets in cars.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has called for a federal ban on texting-while-driving, said Wednesday that his campaign against distracted driving is focused on cell phones, and that the administration hasn't developed a policy on hands-free phones and other devices found in vehicles. He previously said that he personally believes a variety of behaviors qualify as distracted driving, not just cell-phone use.

LaHood said Wednesday that he planned to meet with auto-industry executives to discuss their concerns about anti-distracted-driving laws. But he criticized a proposal by Seward Square Group, a Washington lobbying group tied to the electronics industry, to lobby against state laws that would ban driver cell-phone use, saying he was "shocked" that industries would fight laws designed to improve driver safety.

Seward Square issued a statement saying it would abandon its campaign, which came to light when a document was posted on the Internet this week.

Electronics makers and car companies are raising concerns that state laws to ban text-messaging among drivers eventually could be expanded to cover technologies such as global-positioning systems, televisions and voice-activation devices. Thirty states have banned driver text-messaging, and more are expected to do so as the Obama administration offers grants in exchange for passing such laws.

Some safety advocates and business groups say laws should be more restrictive, and they point to research that shows that the use of other electronics can increase the risk of a crash.

Those risks, they say, will only increase as car companies increasingly equip their vehicles with new technologies. Ford Motor Co. (F), for example, has sought to lead the way in such technology, and is equipping cars with MyFord, an intricate system that allows drivers to bring up information on computer screens using voice commands.

Ford said in a statement that it agrees "driver distraction is a major issue" and that it has conducted research and development to "develop technology to improve driver awareness and safety."

Steve Kidera of the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents Ford and some 2,000 other firms tied to the electronics industry, said new technologies make cars safer. Voice-activated GPS devices, for example, allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road, he said.

"Keeping your eyes on the road is safer than having a map on your lap, looking down, being lost in a strange city," said Kidera. Likewise, children watching programming on a television mounted in a back seat causes less of a distraction than screaming children, he said.

Kidera said that his group has met with LaHood and state officials in recent months to voice concerns about proposed laws that might go too far. He said that the group supports a ban on texting-while-driving.

"We are certainly for driver safety," Kidera said, but added that "we don't feel that all technology should be eliminated from the car."