WASHINGTON — Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced plans Tuesday to convene a national summit to study texting while driving and other behaviors that take drivers' focus off the roads.
The announcement trails several fatal car, truck and mass transit accidents involving drivers who were text messaging -- as well as revved-up efforts by states and Congress to curb behind-the-wheel distractions.
"If it were up to me, I would ban drivers from texting," LaHood said. He acknowledged, however, that laws -- including those prohibiting drunk driving -- often are insufficient without education and enforcement.
"That's why I have decided to convene a summit of senior transportation officials, safety advocates, law enforcement representatives, members of Congress and academics who study these matters," he said.
Upon completion of the summit, scheduled for late September, LaHood said he would announce a list of "concrete steps" to curtail distracted driving, possibly including education and awareness campaigns alongside legislative efforts.
A bill introduced in the Senate last week, if passed, would pressure states to pass laws that ban texting while operating a moving vehicle. Because driving behavior is considered a state issue, the Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting by Drivers Act, or ALERT Drivers Act, would threaten states with the loss of highway funding if they did not enact adequate legislation.
Within six months of the bill's passage, the Transportation Department would establish minimum penalties for state laws. States then would have two years to pass compliant bans or risk losing 25% of their annual highway funding.
Sixteen states -- including California -- and the District of Columbia have passed laws that prohibit texting while driving. But the ability to enforce the laws varies. In Virginia and Washington, police officers cannot pull over someone who appears to be texting unless the driver has committed another violation, like speeding. And anti-texting laws in some states apply only to younger drivers.
In announcing the summit, LaHood cited a recent accident involving a 17-year-old from Peoria, Ill. -- the secretary's hometown -- who died in an accident in which she drove off the road while texting friends.
And last September, 25 people were killed and 135 injured in a commuter train crash in Chatsworth after the operator was text messaging.
But distractions are not limited to fumbling with phones.
Earlier this year, a 56-year-old Illinois woman on a motorcycle was struck and killed by a woman who was applying nail polish while driving.
"The bottom line," LaHood said, "is distracted driving is dangerous driving."