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  • Thu October 01 2009
  • Posted Oct 1, 2009
By MATT RICHTEL Federal employees will no longer be allowed to send text messages while driving government vehicles or when driving their own cars and using cellphones paid for by the government, according to an executive order signed Wednesday night by President Obama. The order also precludes federal employees using their personal hand-held devices from sending text messages while driving on government business. Separately, the federal government plans to ban text messaging by bus drivers and truckers who travel across state lines, and may also preclude that group from using cellphones while driving, except in cases of emergency. Transportation Secretary Ray H. LaHood on Thursday announced those measures, and several others, aimed at curbing what he called a deadly epidemic of distracted driving. He made his announcement at the culmination of a two-day conference held in Washington that included 300 academics, policy makers, law-enforcement officials, legislators, telecommunications and automobile industry representatives, as well as families of people killed by motorists talking on cellphones or text messaging. “This meeting is probably the most important meeting in the history of the Department of Transportation,” Mr. LaHood said in his remarks concluding the conference. Mr. LaHood said that the order to restrict text messaging by federal employees behind the wheel makes a statement about the seriousness of the issue. “It sends a very clear signal to the American public that distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable,” he said. A spokeswoman for the Department of Transportation said the order takes effect immediately and involves 4.5 million federal employees, including military personnel. The rule banning interstate truckers and bus drivers from talking — and restricting their cellphone use — will take longer to put in place and may be more nuanced. Mr. LaHood said the rule would “ban text messaging altogether” by such drivers. But Rose A. McMurray, acting administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates the trucking industry, said that there would first need to be a definition of “text messaging.” The question facing the trucking industry in particular is what fate will become of the computers deployed in long-haul truckers so that the drivers can communicate with dispatchers, get work instructions and participate in other tasks. Research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute shows that these devices can markedly increase the risk of crash or near crash and also that truckers, while warned not to use these devices while their vehicles are moving, tend to do so anyway. Ms. McMurray said she expected that it would take 18 months to two years to finalize a rule governing the buses and trucks, during which time, the agency would study the “array of devices” used by these drivers. She did say that she expects to ban truckers from texting using their phones and also to ban behavior that “that would require fingers to manipulate a keyboard, or to take the eyes of the road” to use a keyboard and, possibly, other technologies used for typing. The trucking industry has said it is concerned that texting bans in general could have unintended consequences of interfering with devices that truckers have come to rely upon for productivity. Ms. Rose said it was also not yet clear how the rule would restrict the use of cellphones by these drivers. She said it could include a ban altogether on the use of such phones by interstate truckers and bus drivers, except in cases of emergency, but she said that rule will also take time to finalize. She said the need to take such steps in part “because of the size of the vehicles.” Broadly, the distracted driving conference gave voice to a range of different interests hoping to raise awareness of distracted driving but also hoping to influence how the issue gets addressed. Among the speakers were Senators Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, and Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey, who have introduced legislation to force states to ban texting while driving or lose federal highway funds. Some attendees left the gathering concerned that the conference put a considerable emphasis on texting bans at the expense of undertaking the risks posed by drivers talking on cellphones. That issue was discussed, but less so than texting, in part, critics said, because the texting issue seems like a more politically palatable one to deal with. Banning texting “makes people feel good and makes it look like you’re doing something, but you’re not tackling the more difficult problem,” said David Strayer, a professor at the University of Utah who studies distracted driving. “It misses the larger point.”

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