WASHINGTON — Only hours after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood lambasted a lobbying firm he accused of working against efforts to limit drivers' use of cell phones behind the wheel, the firm announced it was scrapping its plans.
LaHood joined other transportation safety leaders Wednesday to condemn the actions the Seward Square Group, who aimed to fight state laws prohibiting motorists from talking and texting while driving.
Instead, the lobbying group encouraged broader laws that would focus on car distractions in general. But shortly after the news conference, the group scrapped its lobbying efforts.
“We are pleased that the concept has met its goal of expanding dialogue on distracted driving, therefore the proposed coalition is no longer being pursued,” the lobbying firm said.
Seward Square created the Drivers for Responsible Innovation and Vehicle Education Coalition to focus the distracted driving debate on enforcement and not banning cell phones in cars.
In the client presentation _ originally obtained by FairWarning, a watchdog Internet site _ Seward Square said, “National transportation authorities and media celebrities have hijacked the debate…[and] auto, tech, and insurance industries…have become collateral damage in this transportation battle.”
The presentation targeted media mogul Oprah Winfrey for her support of a “no phone zone” in cars.
Last year, the Department of Transportation launched a nationwide campaign intending to reduce distracted driving, a practice which, according to government statistics, kills nearly 6,000 people and injures a half million more each year.
“The goal of the proposed coalition concept was to work with all concerned parties and public safety advocates to modernize driver education and promote aggressive enforcement, as this issue is more than just phones in cars. Our collaborative effort simply sought to expand the discussion to include other common forms of driver distraction, Seward said in a statement Wednesday after LaHood’s press conference.
LaHood said we was “stunned” that anyone would oppose the Department’s push for safer driving standards. The secretary said he plans to keep the “pedal to the metal” and encourage the 20 states that have yet to adopt anti-distracted driving legislation to do so. Tuesday, Delaware became the 30th state to adopt laws banning hand-held cell phone use and texting while driving.
“We’ve been on a rampage over distracted driving for over a year now,” LaHood said. “We are encouraging drivers to put down their cell phones and BlackBerrys and focus on the road.”
Statistics from the National Safety Council say about 11 percent of drivers are using cell phones and that drivers distracted by cell phones are four times more likely to be at risk for injury or death.
Joining LaHood was Jim Hall, former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, who supported of the DOT’s efforts. The Seward Square Group said Hall signed on to be “the face of coalition,” but Hall said he never agreed to that role and that he supports a ban on cell phones while driving. Hall described himself as an “advisor” to Seward.
Separately from the Seward Square, the Consumer Electronics Association has battled state legislation banning any technology in cars. Jason Oxman, a spokesman for the association, said it supports LaHood and safety measures but wants to see legislation banning all distractions. Oxman said CEA did not support the Seward Square effort.
“We absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with Secretary LaHood. Distracted driving is wrong, unsafe and unacceptable,” Oxman said. “But when you’re looking at distracted driving, you shouldn’t just look to target specific industries or technology.” Oxman said other products like GPS systems actually aid drivers rather than distract them. CEA supports a ban on cell phones for novice drivers, he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY