Lobbyists Target Distracted Driving Campaigns by Oprah, Ray LaHood

Talk show host Oprah Winfrey speaking with guests about the dangers of distracted driving.

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An internal document describes efforts to forge a powerful industry coalition to counter campaigns by Oprah Winfrey and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood against drivers using cell phones and other mobile devices, which experts have linked to thousands of traffic injuries and deaths.

The memo prepared by Washington lobbyists says the new group, the DRIVE Coalition, will promote driver education as an alternative to regulations that could dampen demand for mobile devices and lead to billions of dollars in lost sales.

The threat posed by Winfrey and LaHood is a prominent theme of the 10-page memo, which was obtained by FairWarning.

“In less than 6 months, a benign debate about teens and texting has morphed into a full-throttle assault on mobile technology,” the memo warns. “With industries remaining silent, national transportation authorities and media celebrities have hijacked the debate, a dire consequence to reasonable regulation.”

In response, DRIVE — which stands for “Drivers for Responsibility, Innovation and Vehicle Education” — will work to shift the focus from regulation to driver awareness, reaching out to lawmakers, regulators and the public while “providing industry cover,” the document says.

In advance of a planned launch and media campaign in September, efforts are underway to recruit top marketers of cell phones and GPS devices, auto makers, wireless carriers, and insurance companies, including such names as Motorola, Nokia, General Motors, Ford, AT&T, Microsoft and TomTom.

The document is labeled as a proposal, and it’s unclear if companies have signed up, or if the lobbyists are trolling for clients.

The head of DRIVE will be James E. Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board during most of the Clinton administration, the memo says. Hall, who did not return phone calls Wednesday, runs Hall & Associates, a Washington-based consulting firm, and is an adviser to the Seward Square Group, one of three lobbying and public relations firms identified as working with DRIVE. Calls to Seward Square and the other two firms, the Eris Group and Praecere Public Relations, also were not returned.

U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood.

The memo cites LaHood’s activism as evidence of the need for urgent action. A former Republican congressman from Illinois, LaHood has been far more outspoken than his predecessors about the risks of distracted driving.

In January, when LaHood announced a federal ban on text messaging by commercial truckers, he said it was his goal “to eliminate all mobile devices in vehicles…New technologies do not fit with my high standard of zero distractions in vehicles, period,” according to the memo. It also cites his April announcement of pilot programs in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., to crack down on distracted driving.

“Similar pilot programs on drunk driving and seat belts ultimately became federal mandates, where government dictates behavior behind the wheel,” the document warns. E-mails and calls to the Department of Transportation were not returned.

Winfrey, who has made the issue a personal crusade — even urging guests on her TV show to sign a pledge not to yak behind the wheel — is described in the memo as “the most powerful person in media” with more than 3.7 million followers on Twitter and 1.5 million Facebook fans.

“Her website has an entire ‘No Phone Zone’ on distracted driving,” describing it as “‘an epidemic that is sweeping through our country, claiming lives and destroying families,’” the document states.

“This is the first we’re hearing of this, and we have no further comment,” said Michelle McIntyre Sznewajs, a spokeswoman for Harpo Productions, the company that produces Oprah Winfrey’s daytime talk show.

In 2008, there were 5,870 U.S. traffic deaths and 515,000 injuries caused by distracted driving, according to estimates by federal highway safety officials, though it’s uncertain how many involved electronic devices. The National Safety Council has estimated that 28 percent of all vehicle crashes are attributable to cell phone use.

Though no state prohibits on-road use of cell phones, more than half have adopted some restrictions — typically poorly enforced. Among them are bans on texting and on use of cell phones by teens and school bus drivers. Seven states and Washington D.C. require the use of hands-free devices.

“We’re all working to get laws passed in the states and in Congress,” said Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, who has reviewed the memo. The goals of DRIVE “are completely contradictory to ours and other safety groups,” she said. “This is so clearly a negative effort, and we would like to see it die on the vine.”

Clarence Ditlow, who heads the Center for Auto Safety, called DRIVE “a diversionary public relations effort that takes the attention away from mobile devices.”

“They want to stop regulation where it is,” he said. “It’s not just texting and driving,…it’s the whole plethora of devices that are coming down the road that are going to take the driver’s attention away from driving.”

Elise Craig, Lilly Fowler and Lea Yu also contributed to this story.

CORRECTION: The original version of this story said James E. Hall was an advisor to the Eris Group. He was an advisor to the Seward Square Group.

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Myron Levin is editor of FairWarning.

8 comments to “Lobbyists Target Distracted Driving Campaigns by Oprah, Ray LaHood”

  1. Todd

    You want to save lives do you? There are 40,000 traffic fatalities in this country every year. 17,000 of them are kids. Want to save lives? STOP DRIVING SO DAMN MUCH!
    Meanwhile, you’re all trying to ban guns and put fences around your swimming pools and ban playground equipment and ban flavored cigarettes when the most dangerous thing you’ll ever do to your kid is put them in the car with you. But we wouldn’t want to give up convenience just because it’s the most probable cause of death, now would we?

  2. Kevin B

    “Similar pilot programs on drunk driving and seat belts ultimately became federal mandates, where government dictates behavior behind the wheel,” the document warns.

    Wow! In their own words! How awful that government mandated that people wear seat belts and NOT drive while intoxicated!

    I’m all for personal freedom, but common sense must also play a role. Getting behind the wheel of a 2,500+ vehicle and driving in traffic and near pedestrians at relatively high speeds demands our full attention. If evidence shows that distracted driving impairs a driver’s attention, then common sense dictates that safety wins out over someone’s sense of “personal freedom.” Besides, I seriously doubt that “billions of dollars” are at stake here in lost revenue.

  3. 0101101

    I see no evidence that talking on a phone – hands-free or otherwise – is more distracting than tuning the radio, dealing with kids in the back seat, applying make up, looking at a map or GPS, eating, talking with a passenger….. etc. A phone is just one more thing. The nature of the distraction is irrelevant. Drivers should be attentive to driving.
    Outlawing use of a phone is an attempt to be proactive, but it’s not the public’s duty to prevent all accidents – it’s the duty of the driver. Any assertion that, ‘if one life is saved, it’s worth it’ isn’t just wrong, it’s absurd.

  4. driving anxiety

    While we’re dabbling in the area of Lobbyists Target Distracted Driving Campaigns by Oprah, Ray LaHood | FairWarning, You must have heard about people being scared of driving. This is a common condition caused by driving fear that eventually leads to driving anxiety.

  5. Jim Hoffman

    As a cyclist, distracted drivers are a threat to my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. I also know of two cyclists killed by distracted drivers. Neither of these drivers were ever charged with a crime, not even a ticket. Hang up and drive.

  6. Jake

    I’m also in support for better driver education on the risks of texting/using a mobile device while driving. Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that these mobile devices are a fad- their popularity and proliference are increasing daily, and we need to teach younger drivers especially how to drive safely with these devices in their cars. If regulators didn’t think cell phones and mobile technology are going to be around for awhile and permanently influence our driving, we wouldn’t even be seeing a conversation on the issue, considering all the other things (eat, read, apply make-up) we see people do every day while they drive.

    Also, something many people don’t know because of how the media frames this issue as hands free vs. standard use– several studies have shown no significant difference between driver distractedness when using a hands free device vs. a standard mobile phone. BOTH significantly influence driver distractedness but neither has a greater significant detremental effect than the other.

  7. Lobbyists Try to Reframe Distracted Driving Issue - Wheels Blog - NYTimes.com

    [...] lobbying firm, the Seward Square Group, has fueled the tension. The document, a copy of which was posted by the Web site FairWarning, says the distracted driving issue has been “hijacked” by national transportation authorities [...]

  8. Lisa Stoehr

    I am all for driver responsibility and vehicle education. If people can see what can happen (on a simulator, driving a course, picturs of vehicular accidents caused by texting, etc) when texting and driving, that should change their ways, hopefully

    I will be keeping an eye on what happens in the future regarding this subject..

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