I am, as of this writing, 144 days away from never again being able to sleep soundly. That is when my 15-year-old daughter, as she delights in constantly reminding me, will receive her learner’s permit. And every time she gets behind the wheel, I’ll worry about the dangerous combination of teenage brain and 3,000-pound lethal weapon.

I’m not sure whether I should blame Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood for adding to my anxiety or hug him for a timely lecture about the particular perils of distracted driving among teens — behaviors such as chatting on cell phones, checking BlackBerry messages, and texting.

I’m leaning toward hug.

LaHood phoned me — no, not in the car, although it is Bluetooth-enabled and I confess to conducting interviews on the road — in advance of the Transportation Department’s second annual Distracted Driving Summit.

His message was chastening, for me as well as my daughter: “You can’t drive safely with a cell phone in your ear or a BlackBerry in your hand. Put it in the glove compartment, because there’s no call so important it can’t wait.”

The statistics about teens are frightening. The highest proportion of distracted drivers in fatal crashes were under the age of 20. One in four teens say they have texted while driving. Half of 12- to 17-year-olds say they’ve ridden with a texting driver. Half of cell-owning teens ages 16 to 17 — are there any without? — say they have talked on the phone while driving.

And here’s why it’s so dangerous: “Drivers who send and receive text messages take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds while texting,” according to the Transportation Department. “At 55 miles per hour, this means that the driver is traveling the length of an entire football field without looking at the road.”

As to old-fashioned calls, “using a cell phone while driving, whether it’s hand-held or hands-free, delays a driver’s reactions as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08 percent.”

We need to do for cell phones and texting what we’ve accomplished for drunk driving and driving while unbuckled: make it unacceptable — and against the law. Currently, 30 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, but only six states and the District prohibit all hand-held devices. The federal government should prod more states to follow suit, whether through carrots (incentive grants) or, if need be, sticks (threatening to withhold some transportation dollars.)

I’d also like to see more research into what really distracts drivers — in part because I do love my Bluetooth, and in part because of the array of diverting new technologies. Tapping a button on my steering wheel to take a call does not seem anywhere near as distracting as, say, glancing at the GPS screen or fiddling with the radio. Indeed, the only accident I’ve ever had happened when I was leaning down to put in a compact disc.

But LaHood did convince me: There is not a stoplight exception to the texting-while-driving rule. “I guarantee you when you’re looking at that message and the light turns green you don’t see it turning green,” he said. “Once the distraction starts, it’s very tough to take your eyes off.”

Point taken. We talked about distracted driving as I was driving my carpool (my daughter and two older teens) Thursday morning. And I managed to make it to the office without checking messages along the way.

Ruth Marcus’ e-mail address is marcusr(at symbol)washpost.com.

© 2010, Washington Post Writers Group


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