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.
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.