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Support in Senate for cellphone driver ban

A bill would give federal funds to states that forbid driving while texting or talking without a hands-free device. It could pass this year.

October 14, 2009|Kim Geiger

WASHINGTON — Amid calls from the Obama administration and traffic safety advocates to ban texting and talking on hand-held cellphones while driving, Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) has thrown his support behind the effort -- a sign that the Senate could pass such legislation this year.

The powerful chairman of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has written a bill that would offer federal funds to states that enact laws against driving while texting or talking on a hand-held device. That incentive approach probably would have a better chance at passage than punitive legislation introduced in July by Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would require states to ban texting while driving or risk losing federal highway funds.

Rockefeller has scheduled a hearing on his proposal in two weeks.

"We all know that the explosion of cellphone use and texting during the past few years has brought distracted driving to a new level of danger for all Americans on the road," Rockefeller said in a statement. "The rising numbers of deaths and injuries are alarming."

Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.), who is cosponsoring the bill, added: "Our legislation offers a comprehensive strategy to combat distracted driving, make our roads safer and save lives."

To qualify for the funds, states would have to enact laws that fine drivers a minimum of $200 for texting and $100 for talking on a hand-held phone. States also would have to ban all use of cellphones by drivers younger than 18.

The funds, totaling $60 million over two years, would be diverted from an existing program to encourage seat belt laws and could be used by states to pay for traffic safety projects. The federal government also would spend as much as $24 million on nationwide distracted-driving campaigns.

California, Connecticut and Oregon have banned texting and talking on a hand-held phone while driving, as well as all cellphone use by drivers younger than 18. These states would be eligible for the funds, but may have to enact some changes to comply with all the provisions of the bill.

In addition to the bans, states would be required to include distracted-driving questions on driver's license exams and to double the penalties for drivers who cause accidents while texting or talking on the phone, according to a draft outline of the legislation.

The bill comes weeks after the Obama administration hosted a distracted-driving conference, where Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a rule prohibiting federal employees from texting while driving.

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kim.geiger@latimes.com

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