Portland radio personality and blogger Lars Larson isn’t likely to add Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to his "friends and family" list anytime soon.
Not when, as Larson suggests in a Nov. 21, 2010, post on the conservative website OregonCatalyst.com, LaHood is "going to force you to stop using your cell phone."
What? I’m sorry, you’re breaking up. Can you find a stronger signal and say that again?
Larson wrote the post five days after LaHood appeared on the MSNBC show Morning Joe on Nov. 16, 2010. On the show, LaHood talked about the dangers of distracted driving and how cell phones, smart phones, iPods and other devices have become major contributors to the problem. During the conversation, LaHood was asked about "slamming" technology that would render cell phones useless.
"Simply banning talking on a cell phone behind the wheel is not enough for him," Larson wrote. "He’s on MSNBC saying, ‘I think it will be done. Scrambling technology is there and I think you are going to see the technology become adaptable to disable cell phones. We need to do a lot more if we are going to save lives.’"
"Ready for Nanny State LaHood to be driving behind the wheel with you? He’s not only telling you that you can’t use your cell phone but he’s going to disable it so that it won’t work," Larson wrote.
Larson wasn’t alone in this charge. A large group of mostly conservative commentators constructed an assortment of conspiracy theories after hearing LaHood.
Here’s the exchange on Morning Joe that touched it off:
Co-host Mika Brzezinski: "So, Secretary, everything you said is true. Everybody does it, everybody’s on the phone. If you look around my neighborhood, all the moms are trying to pick up kids, they’re on their phones, they’re trying to pick up other kids, it happens. Isn’t the only way to stop this, is to have a device in the car, when that car is on, a ‘slammer.’ Literally, the ‘phone slammer’ starts and phones don’t work. Isn’t that the only way to stop it?"
Secretary LaHood: "There’s a lot of technology out there now that can disable phones and we’re looking at that. A number of them [cell technology innovators] came to our Distracted Driving Summit here in Washington and presented their technology, and that’s one way. But you have to have good laws, you have to have good enforcement, and you have to have people take personal responsibility. That’s the bottom line."
LaHood’s comments admittedly left room for interpretation and confusion, sort of like talking to someone with a weak signal and hearing every third word.
LaHood and his aides apparently realized this, too. Two days later LaHood clarified his comments on the department’s blog.
"Again, personal responsibility – that’s the bottom line," LaHood wrote in a Nov. 18, 2010, entry titled "Setting the Record Straight" on Fast Lane, "the official blog of the U.S. Secretary of Transportation."
"When you get behind the wheel of a 5,000 pound automobile, you have a personal responsibility to drive that vehicle safely. That means, put away cell phones and other devices that take your focus off of the road."
Timing is important, however.
The clarification came three days before Larson’s entry on OregonCatalyst.
Ignored in the jousting is this central -- and unchallenged -- fact: Distracted driving is a major threat to safety. It’s also beyond question that young and inexperienced drivers are especially at risk.
Here are some facts:
- In 2008, almost 20 percent of all crashes involved some type of distraction. (Source: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration - NHTSA).
- Nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver, and more than half a million were injured. (NHTSA)
- The younger, inexperienced drivers under 20 years old have the highest proportion of distraction-related fatal crashes.
- Drivers who use hand-held devices are four times as likely to get into crashes serious enough to injure themselves. (Source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety)
- 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 0.08 percent. (Source: University of Utah)
Given that reality, LaHood says, his department is always on the lookout for new approaches and technology to minimize the danger. Some of those technologies are being studied by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Banning cell phone use in cars by way of "slamming technology" is not on the list and will not be considered, LaHood and his aides say.
That leads to an obvious question. "Some have asked why NHTSA would research this kind of technology if there was no intent to put it into use," Department of Transportation press secretary Olivia Alair said in an e-mail exchange.
"The reality is, many independent researchers and innovators have approached the DOT with technologies they’ve designed to prevent distracted driving. NHTSA needs to evaluate these kinds of technologies in large part because they may one day wind up on the market – geared towards parents who want to install them in their teens’ cars for example – and it’s important for NHTSA to know how they work, whether they are safe, and whether they help or hurt efforts to stop distracted driving."
But, she adds, "We have never promoted the use of technologies to disable cell phone signals, nor have we ever indicated we intended to require them."
Larson could be forgiven for jumping to the wrong conclusion if his comments appeared the same day LaHood spoke -- or even the next day. But saying the federal government is moving to cripple your phone three days after the record was clarified to the contrary is dubious no matter how well your smart phone is working. For that reason, we rate his claim False.