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'Distracted Driving Summit'

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The US government wants to crack down on teens texting their BFF Jill from behind the wheel through federal action and public education.

The Department of Transportation today convened a two-day "Distracted Driving Summit," gathering lawmakers, experts, advocates, and automakers to mull plans and recommendations on the dangers of text-messaging and other forms of automobile interference.

Last year, 5,870 people in the US died and about 515,000 were injured in reported crashes involving driver distraction, according to statistics trotted out for the event. (PDF of that here) Driver distractions were involved in 16 per cent of the country's fatal crashes in 2008.

"To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in his opening address to the summit. "Distracted driving is an epidemic and it seems to be getting worse every year."

LaHood said tomorrow he will announce actions that the department will be taken at a federal level to deal with the problem, but added that legal action alone is an ineffective way to curb careless driving behavior. "You can't legislate behavior," he said. "Taking personal responsibility is the key to this solution."

The new data points to the largest proportion of distracted drivers are those age 20 and under. Sixteen per cent of all under-20 drivers in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving, the government cites. But the problem is more widespread than inexperienced youths, said LaHood.

"Across the board, federal researchers who have directly observed drivers of all ages found that more and more people are using a variety of hand-held devices while driving," he said. "Not just cell phones, but also iPods, video games, BlackBerrys, and so fourth. They're doing it every day of the week, in the rain, and with kids in the car. And we know this problem isn't limited to private citizens. Incredibly, bus drivers, train operators, truck drivers, and even school bus drivers have allowed distractions to interfere with their work."

LaHood evoked the case of a California commuter train engineer who allegedly missed a red signal because he was busy texting a friend, killing 25 and injuring 135.

Like most seatbelt laws in the US, distracted driving legislation is left to individual states to decide. Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws making texting while driving illegal, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, and 9 states ban young drivers from texting while driving. But some lawmakers want to strong-arm all 50 states into similar laws.

Democrat Charles Schumer is championing legislation that would require states to ban texting or e-mail while driving a motor vehicle or lose 25 per cent of their annual federal highway funding. (By the way, that's how the US enforced a 55 mph (90 km/h) national speed limit from 1974 to 1995.)

"We need every state to put safety first," Schumer told the summit. ®

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