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LaHood calls for federal ban on using cell phones while driving

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says texting and talking on a cell phone while driving should be outlawed across the U.S.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood wants a federal law banning talking or texting on a cell phone while driving.

Yesterday at an event in San Antonio, Texas, he called for tough federal legislation that would deal with what he called a "national epidemic" of distracted driving, according to a Reuters report. LaHood told a group of doctors, government officials, and other advocates for bans on cell phone use while driving that police should have "the opportunity to write tickets when people are foolishly thinking they can drive safely or use a cell phone and text and drive," Reuters reported.

LaHood has been supportive of state laws that ban cell phone use while driving, but he has never before called for a federal law prohibiting it.

Thirty-eight states have laws restricting or outlawing the use of electronic devices while driving, LaHood said.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that distracted driving was the cause of 3,000 fatal traffic accidents nationwide last year. This is far fewer than the number of fatalities caused by alcohol-related traffic accidents.

The U.S. Department of Transportation said in a report last year that only 9 percent of highway fatalities in the U.S. in 2010 were caused by distracted driving, compared to 31 percent of deaths linked to alcohol. What's more, the agency also reported that overall highway fatalities have been falling steadily since the 1980s. In fact, the report indicated that highway fatalities in 2010 fell to the lowest level since 1949, even as Americans drove more and even as they use more technology.

Still, experts say that distracted driving is a problem. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration even said that using a cell phone while driving delays reaction time the same amount as having a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08, the legal limit.

While critics of these laws don't dispute that distracted driving may cause accidents, they believe that additional laws aren't needed to ban the use of devices while driving because there are other laws covering inattentive driving.

"It shouldn't matter if the driver is distracted by a conversation with another vehicle passenger, tuning the radio, eating a snack, or talking on a cell phone," Gary Biller, president of the National Motorists Association, said in a statement. "Existing laws cover all those distractions and more."

LaHood said more needs to be done. He compared the issue to how drunk driving was treated 20 or 30 years ago. He said more awareness and stronger laws are needed to criminalize the activity so that people will stop doing it.

In December the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that states ban the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while driving. The NTSB went one step further and recommended banning the use of hands-free devices while driving, as well. LaHood previously has said that is unnecessary. Instead, he has mostly advocated for bans on hand-held devices while driving.

But LaHood said his agency is researching the effects of hands-free devices in cars. And he said he has been talking to car manufacturers about putting other Internet-connected features into cars.