WASHINGTON — President Obama has banned federal employees from text messaging when they are behind the wheel of government vehicles and from texting in their own cars if they use government-issued phones or are on official business.
The ban, in the form of an executive order signed Wednesday night, was announced Thursday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at the culmination of a two-day meeting on the issue of distracted driving.
"It shows that the federal government is taking the lead," LaHood said. "This is a big deal."
The Obama administration said it also will seek to ban text messaging by interstate bus drivers and truckers and push states to pass their own laws against driving cars while distracted.
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"Driving while distracted should just feel wrong — just as driving without a seat belt or driving while intoxicated," LaHood said. "We're not going to break everyone of their bad habits — but we are going to raise awareness and sharpen the consequences."
The administration also will push to disqualify school bus drivers who are convicted of texting while driving from keeping their commercial driver's licenses.
Researchers, safety groups, automakers and lawmakers gathered to discuss the perils of distracted driving, hearing sobering data from the government that underscored the safety threat as more motorists stay connected with cell phones and mobile devices.
The Transportation Department reported that 5,870 people were killed and 515,000 were injured last year in crashes connected to driver distraction, often involving mobile devices or cell phones. Driver distraction was involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes in 2008 and was more prevalent among young drivers.
Senate Democrats said support was building in Congress to move against text messaging by drivers. The legislation, pushed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., would require states to ban texting or e-mailing while operating a moving vehicle or lose 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding.
"It's like driving with your eyes closed," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., a proponent of a texting ban.
LaHood declined to endorse Schumer's bill, saying simply that the administration would work with Congress. Many states have questioned the use of sanctions against states that do not pass laws sought by Congress, especially during tough economic times.
"The words 'federal mandate' and 'federal sanctions' do not play well," said Bruce Starr, an Oregon state senator who attended the conference.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia already have passed laws making texting while driving illegal, and seven states and the District have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Many safety groups have urged a nationwide ban on using any handheld mobile devices while behind the wheel.
Bus and truck operators said they would review the plans. Dave Osiecki, vice president for safety at the American Trucking Associations, said his group would work with LaHood "on a comprehensive approach to reducing distractions for all drivers, including professional truck drivers."
American Bus Association president Peter Pantuso said his organization supported the restrictions and most member companies already had policies prohibiting drivers from texting and using cell phones.
The conference attracted families of victims of accidents caused by distracted driving, who urged the government to take a strong stance against cell phone use in vehicles, whether it includes a handsfree device or not. They said technologies that prevent the mobile device from receiving e-mails or phone calls while the vehicle is in motion could help address the problem.