LaHood: 'Put safety before entertainment'

WASHINGTON — The new battleground between advancing technology and highway safety emerged Tuesday when U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood scolded the auto industry for turning cars into entertainment centers.

LaHood, speaking at a conference he convened on distracted driving, said that automakers have supported bans on text messaging and hand-held cell phone use while driving.

But at the same time they have introduced other distractions.

"In recent days and weeks we've seen news stories about carmakers adding technology in vehicles that lets drivers update Facebook, surf the Web or do any number of other things instead of driving safely," he said. "Features that pull drivers' hands, eyes and attention away from the road are distractions."

LaHood said he would meet with car companies to set new safety guidelines.

"Together, let's put safety before entertainment," he told the gathering of several hundred politicians, safety advocates and business leaders in Washington.

Ford Motor Co. has marketed its in-car entertainment and communication service, known as Sync, and General Motors Co. recently announced plans to give its OnStar safety system better voice recognition so drivers could verbally connect with the Internet.

Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said making driving safer will mean balancing "the fact that we know drivers will do certain things while driving and how technology can make it safer."

LaHood kicked off his second major conference on distracted driving with the announcement that in-state truck drivers who transport hazardous waste will be banned from sending text messages.

The move closed a loophole in a year-old ban on texting by truckers and commercial bus drivers, extending the prohibition to include intrastate truckers who deliver gasoline, propane and other hazardous materials.

LaHood also launched a more concerted effort to get private employers to adopt restrictions on cell phone use by their employees.