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Distracted driver © BananaStock/Jupiterimages // Distracted driver © BananaStock/Jupiterimages

Extra9/17/2009 12:01 AM ET

Carmakers fear 'distracted driving' backlash

As opposition to driving while texting grows, the auto and wireless industries argue that communicating from a moving vehicle -- with certain devices -- is a manageable risk.  

By The Wall Street Journal

Here's one issue in these contentious times that almost everyone appears to agree on: Driving while typing out text messages on a mobile phone is dumb, potentially deadly and should be banned.

So let's just ban driving while texting, right? Not so fast. Nothing's ever that easy, especially when powerful economic interests and different levels of government are involved.

Later this month, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to convene a "summit" on "distracted driving." The issue of driving while texting, or DWT, will be high on the agenda. For the first time, it appears that most major interest groups involved are for doing something to make DWT illegal.

The wireless phone industry's main Washington lobbying arm, CTIA-The Wireless Association, once opposed bans on using mobile phones to talk or text. Now the association supports bans on texting and is officially neutral on other limits to mobile phone use. It notably didn't object when Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said that if it were up to him alone (which it is not), he'd institute a federal ban on DWT. CTIA is also working with the National Safety Council on a series of advertisements warning of the dangers of on-road texting.

CTIA would prefer one nationwide law on the matter, says John Walls, a spokesman for the association.

That's not quite the same position as the Governors Highway Safety Association. This influential group had also balked at the idea of banning driving while texting. Now, the GHSA says it supports state laws banning the practice, though it doesn't like proposals in Congress that would compel states to ban DWT or risk losing federal highway funds.

"States don't need to be sanctioned," says the GHSA's Jonathan Adkins. He points out that 18 states and the District of Columbia have passed anti-texting laws -- about half of them within the past year. It's counterproductive to threaten states with the loss of federal funding at a time when states are supposed to be spending on road projects to save jobs, he says.

It could well turn out, at the rate state legislatures are going, that Congress will get around to enacting a federal DWT ban at about the same time that most states have already acted on their own laws.

But that won't put the issue of distracted driving to rest.

Video: Would a texting ban be enforceable?

Distracted driving is a broad term that can be applied to a wide variety of behaviors. You can be distracted behind the wheel by talking on a mobile phone held in your hand, talking on a phone using an earpiece or talking on a phone using a hands-free "telematics" system embedded in your car. You can be distracted by a messy cheeseburger or a hot cup of coffee. You can be distracted by an iPod that's not playing what you want, or a passenger, or a map or paper with directions on it. You can be distracted by a ball game on the radio, or a billboard.

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Some safety advocates argue that any use of mobile communications while on the road is dangerous and should be stopped. On their side is a body of research that suggests that the mere act of talking to someone not in the car -- whether the phone's up against your head or in a cupholder while you wear an earpiece -- is a risky overload of a driver's cognitive functions.

But automakers, and some safety researchers, are gearing up to argue to federal safety regulators -- at this month's summit and beyond -- that with the proper technology and under appropriate conditions, communicating from a moving vehicle is a manageable risk.

Continued:  Real-world responsibility

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