WASHINGTON — In an effort to curb accidents caused by distracted drivers, the Obama administration has banned federal employees from text messaging while driving and said it would consider new restrictions on cellphone use by rail, truck and bus drivers.
President Obama signed an executive order Wednesday night banning federal employees from text messaging while driving on the job or in a government-owned vehicle. The order was announced Thursday by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at a two-day summit in Washington on distracted driving.
"Driving while distracted should just feel wrong -- just as driving without a seat belt or driving while intoxicated seems wrong to most Americans," LaHood said at the summit, attended by more than 300 lawmakers, safety experts and industry representatives.
Being distracted delays a driver's reaction time, according to research by the University of Utah, as much as a blood-alcohol content of 0.08% -- the legal limit. Deaths blamed on distracted drivers are up since 2004, and are most common among young, inexperienced motorists, according to the National Center for Statistics and Analysis.
LaHood said the administration would push states to pass laws against distracted driving, especially for school bus drivers. The department will also seek a new rule to revoke commercial drivers' licenses for school bus drivers convicted of texting while driving.
Driving while talking on cellphones has been banned in seven states, and texting while driving has been banned in 18 states. Seventeen states have made it illegal for school bus drivers to use cellphones while driving.
In California, it is illegal to text message while driving and to talk on a cellphone while driving without using a hands-free device. It is also illegal for school bus and transit bus drivers to use a cellphone while driving.
The American Trucking Assn. supports the department's plans, noting that its member companies already required drivers to observe such policies.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) is the author of a bill that would go even further by tying state passage of distracted driving laws to federal highway funds.
During the summit, Schumer urged the administration to endorse the bill, which would require all states to ban texting or e-mailing by drivers or risk losing 25% of their annual highway funds.
"The fact is, the federal government cannot, by itself, outlaw texting while driving," Schumer said, noting that states have the authority to make such laws. "But the federal government can make it hard for those states that don't go along."