President Obama has banned federal employees from text messaging when they are behind the wheel of government vehicles and from texting in their own cars if they use government-issued phones or are on official business.
The ban, in the form of an executive order signed Wednesday night, was announced Thursday by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood at the culmination of a two-day meeting on the issue of distracted driving.
"It shows that the federal government is taking the lead," LaHood said. "This is a big deal."
LaHood said his department is developing permanent restrictions on use of mobile devices by rail operators, interstate truck and bus operators, and school bus drivers. The parameters of those rules have not been established, he said.
The gathering in Washington of 300 federal and state officials to discuss growing concerns about cellphone use and texting on the highways ended with no clear plan for addressing the issue. There was general agreement -- supported by public polling and anecdotal evidence of highway mayhem -- that use of iPods and BlackBerries has become a serious hazard.
The District and 18 states, including Maryland and Virginia, have banned texting while driving to different degrees.
In urging the other states to adopt similar rules, LaHood declined to say whether he favored using the same big-stick approach that encouraged states to reduce the legal intoxication limit to .08 blood alcohol level and to increase the drinking age to 21. Many states complied with those federal standards only after their highway funding was threatened.
"We're going to work with Congress on this issue," said LaHood, a former House member. "I've been around long enough to know better than to talk about these things before I talk with them."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that at any given moment during daylight hours, 812,000 drivers are using hand-held cellphones. NHTSA said that equates to 11 percent of the vehicles on the road.
Previous research by the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis found that cellphone use contributed to 6 percent of all crashes, or 636,000 a year, resulting in 342,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths.
Spokesmen for Federal Express and United Parcel Service, two among the nation's largest and most electronically connected truck fleets, said their operations would not be impacted by LaHood's proposed restrictions on cellphone use and texting by their drivers.
Both firms use high-tech tracking systems to follow packages from source to destination, but they prohibit their drivers from using them or other hand-held communication devices while their vehicles are in motion.
"It's a safety issue," said Jim McCluskey of FedEx, which has 43,000 vehicles on the road.
UPS uses two-way communication devices in its fleet of 100,000 vehicles.
"But when they're underway, it's two hands on the steering wheel," said Dan McMackin, public relations manager. "When the vehicle's moving, it can't receive two-way messages, so this won't be a problem for us."