Nearly 6,000 people were killed and a half-million injured last year in U.S. auto accidents due to drivers being distracted, particularly by mobile phones, the government said Wednesday.
The Transportation Department brought together experts for a two-day "distracted driving summit" on highway hazards caused by drivers talking on cell phones or texting from behind the wheel. Secretary Ray LaHood was expected Thursday to offer recommendations that could lead to new restrictions on using the devices while driving.
LaHood said he wanted the meeting of government officials, safety advocates, researchers and lawmakers to set "the stage for finding ways to eliminate texting while driving."
"You see people texting and driving and using cell phones and driving everywhere you go, even in places where it's outlawed, like Washington, D.C. We feel a very strong obligation to point to incidents where people have been killed or where serious injury has occurred," LaHood said.
Hours before the start of the meeting, Transportation officials said in a report that 5,870 people were killed and 515,000 were injured last year in crashes where at least one form of driver distraction was reported. Driver distraction was involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes in 2008.
Public sentiment for banning cell phone use while driving may already be in place. In a released Sunday, 90 percent of Americans said that it should be illegal for drivers to send text messages.
Nearly all age groups in the poll supported a ban of texting while driving, the only dissenters being those between the ages of 18 to 29, in which only 16 percent agreed with an anti-texting law.
The meeting was to hear warnings from young adults who caused accidents because they were texting while driving. Most accidents caused by driving distraction involved drivers aged 20 and under. And of all accidents involving drivers of that age group, 16 percent were reported to have been distracted, the government said.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws making texting while driving illegal, and seven states and the district have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Many safety groups have urged a nationwide ban on texting and on using handheld mobile devices while behind the wheel.
In July, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when drivers of heavy trucks texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater. Dialing a cell phone and using or reaching for an electronic device increased risk of collision about six times in cars and trucks.
The Virginia Tech researchers found the risks of texting generally applied to all drivers, not just truckers. A separate report by Car and Driver magazine found that texting and driving is more dangerous than drunken driving.
© 2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.