Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is fast becoming one of President Obama's most influential cabinet bosses, and not just because he's in charge of doling out billions of stimulus dollars. Yes, he tells Whispers, it's fun playing Santa Claus to states and cities around the nation. But his passion now is switching off that glow in the hands of so many drivers: those cellphones and BlackBerrys lit up as people text and drive—and sometimes crash and die.
"We are hooked on these machines," says LaHood, a former Illinois Republican congressman. "It's somewhat like an addiction to tobacco or alcohol," he vents.
Of course, many cities—like Washington—forbid texting or hand-held cellphone use while driving, and it irks LaHood when he passes a distracted driver. "It makes me crazy when I see people in Washington with a phone up to their ear and a can of soda on their lap thinking that they can do these things. They just simply can't. It does drive me a little crazy."
His goal is to have no distractions whatsoever in cars, even it means developing a device to shut down phones and BlackBerrys when the engine is started. LaHood also wants police to enforce laws barring hand-held cellphone use and is seeking a federal texting-while-driving ban. "We just have to prevent people from using them, and once we do, we save a lot lives," he says.
LaHood got on the antitexting kick during an event last year with families who lost members to crashes blamed on driver texting. Since then, he's issued antitexting rules for truck and bus drivers and established a new group, FocusDriven, modeled after Mothers Against Drunk Driving and tasked with making distracted driving part of driver's ed.
LaHood, who drives a 1998 Buick Regal and newer Ford Escape hybrid, admits he isn't part of the texting generation. "I couldn't text and drive if I had to," he says. And he's no fan of car companies who pack steering wheels with high-tech gear, like Ford with its voice-activated Sync system that aids the use of hands-free phones and navigation systems. "I'm concerned that some of these car manufacturers are putting all these gadgets and bells and whistles in cars that are going to distract people."
Changing habits might be an uphill fight, but LaHood is encouraged by the adoption of past safety measures. "I'm not going to be dissuaded by people who say we can't do it," he says. "We can do it. We've done it in two other instances, with seat belts and drunk driving."
Illustration by Ed Wexler for USN&WR.