The Obama administration on Thursday said that stronger state laws and crackdowns by local law enforcement are the best way to prevent the thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of injuries caused by drivers using cellphones or sending text messages.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said the administration would pay for pilot crackdown programs in Delaware and California to see whether the results replicated those produced by a pair of federally funded programs last year.
Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., officials said distracted driving in general and text messaging in particular dropped greatly during the highly publicized campaigns.
"If you have good law enforcement, you can drive down distracted driving," LaHood said in announcing $2.4 million for the two states. "We think we're going to make a difference here."
The National Transportation Safety Board has called for a ban on the use of mobile devices while driving a vehicle.
Although the federal government doesn't have the constitutional authority to impose a ban, it could threaten to withhold highway funds to get states to pass bans, a tactic that has been used on other traffic safety issues in the past.
"If we could get all 50 states to pass a law, that would send a message," LaHood said. "Me, personally, I'd be for a national ban. I'm going to leave it up to Congress to decide what they want to do."
Ohio last week became the 39th state to ban drivers from sending and receiving text messages. Ten states have prohibited use of handheld cellphones. The District and Maryland ban texting and require hands-free devices for cellphones. Virginia prohibits texting but allows handheld use.
Cellphone use behind the wheel was a factor in at least 24 percent of crashes in 2010, according to the National Safety Council. The council said drivers were talking on the phones in 1.1 million crashes and texting in 160,000.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 5,474 people were killed and about 448,000 injured in 2009 in crashes in which the driver was distracted. Teenagers were particularly prone to accidents when using mobile devices, the federal agency said.
The rapid increase in crashes blamed on use of mobile devices has resulted in lawsuits that claim cellphones were an aggravating factor. Those lawsuits often have named employers who supply drivers with cell phones or encourage their business use while driving.
Research has shown that drivers using hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into a serious crash. Hands-free cellphones aren't much safer because simply talking on the phone has been found to significantly reduce the brain power focused on driving.
Auto manufacturers have sought to find a middle ground, satisfying their customers' desire to stay connected while driving with the overarching safety concerns. LaHood has sought to nudge them along with a set of voluntary guidelines.
"We want to make sure they understand . . . that the ability to download Facebook, the ability to access information while you're driving the car, is not exactly a safe way to drive," LaHood said. "There have to be ways for car companies to address these issues, and I believe they're committed to doing that. We want them to step up here and take personal responsibility for helping us saves lives."