Federal transportation officials are looking to get ahead of a story that broke last week indicating that they are looking into technologies that could block the use of a cell phone while driving as part of a larger effort to reduce accidents caused by people talking or texting behind the wheel.
Headlines in numerous online news sites last month-including eWEEK, Time.com and Discovery.com-spoke of the Department of Transportation's interest in such technologies, quoting Secretary of Transportation Raymond LaHood's comments during an earlier MSNBC interview.
During that interview on network's "Morning Joe" show, LaHood said that "there's a lot of technology out there now that can disable phones, and we're looking at that."
It was that comment that generated much of the headlines, and prompted LaHood to post a blog Nov. 18 saying that while his agency is always interested in technologies that can make the roads safer, personal responsibility and education are key tools in reducing incidents of distracted driving accidents.
LaHood noted that when he was asked whether the federal government should use technology to block phone signals in cars, his full answer was: "There's a lot of technology out there now that can disable phones and we're looking at that. A number of [cell technology innovators] came to our Distracted Driving Summit here in Washington and presented their technology, and that's one way. But you have to have good laws, you have to have good enforcement, and you have to have people take personal responsibility. That's the bottom line."
He said in his blog that it was important in this age of online news to quickly respond to reports on online news sites.
"In this day and age, one inaccurate story can spread far and fast, so I want to set the record straight on the potential role of technology in preventing distracted driving," LaHood said.
There are several software companies, including iZup, tXtBlocker and Zoomsafer, that offer products that can sense when a person is in a moving car by gauging signals passing between cell phone towers and the phone. There are questions from some critics regarding the effectiveness of the software, and right now the use of such technology is voluntary.
Several states have made texting while driving or holding a phone while driving illegal, though these laws are difficult to police, and proponents of tougher laws have said such measures have largely been ineffective.
The Transportation Department in November kicked off an initiative called "Faces of Distracted Driving," which wants to call attention to the almost 5,500 people who have have died and 500,000 who were injured in 2009 due to distracted driving. A video campaign tells the stories of several such victims to humanize the problem.
In his blog, LaHood said that his agency is investigating "some kinds of technologies that might one day prove helpful." Those include warning systems that would sound before a collision occurs or if a car drifts from its lane. However, reducing the number of deaths from distracted driving needs to come from the drivers themselves, he said.
"Again, personal responsibility - that's the bottom line," LaHood wrote. "When you get behind the wheel of a 5,000 pound automobile, you have a personal responsibility to drive that vehicle safely. That means, put away cell phones and other devices that take your focus off of the road."
Getting people to do so won't be easy. In June, the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project found that 43 percent of teens surveyed and 61 percent of adults admitted to using a cell phone while driving.
People shouldn't need technology to convince them to use common sense, he said.
"That's why our antidistracted driving campaign has focused on raising awareness, getting good laws on the books, stepping up enforcement, and most importantly, taking personal responsibility," LaHood wrote. "No one should need a piece of technology in their car to tell them that talking or texting while driving is incredibly dangerous."