DOT vs. Lobbyists in Distracted Driving Dust-up

Person texting on cell phone while driving and Oprah Winfrey
AP Photo/iStockphoto
Oprah Winfrey has been outspoken against distracted driving.
AP Photo/iStockphoto

With the Department of Transportation's crackdown on distracted driving gaining traction, a pair of lobbying firms is preparing to form a coalition to combat what they call "a full-throttle assault on mobile technology."

The DOT launched a nationwide campaign last year aimed at reducing distracted driving, a practice which, according to government statistics, kills nearly 6,000 people and injures a half million more each year.

As part of the effort to stem what Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood labeled a "deadly epidemic," the DOT convened a national distracted driving summit, helped push dozens of states to enact bans on texting or using cell phones without hands-free devices while driving, formed an anti-distracted driving advocacy group called FocusDriven that was patterned after Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and enlisted numerous celebrities, including Oprah Winfrey, in its cause. Secretary LaHood has described the campaign as a "rampage" against distracted driving and apparently some DC lobbyists agree.

In an internal 10-page proposal provided to the media by DOT, the lobbying firms Seward Square Group and Eris Group argue that "a benign debate about teens and texting has morphed into a full-throttle assault on mobile technology," noting ominously that "[s]imilar pilot programs on drunk driving and seatbelts ultimately became federal mandates, where government dictates behavior behind the wheel."

DRIVE Coalition Strategy Plan June 2010 (PDF)

The firms say that "national transportation authorities and media celebrities have hijacked the debate" and warn that "auto, tech, and insurance industries ... have become collateral damage." Their solution is to counter the effort by creating something called the DRIVE Coalition, short for "Drivers for Responsibility, Innovation and Vehicle Education." The proposal calls for the coalition to launch on September 1 after recruiting electronics companies like Apple and Motorola, wireless service providers such as Verizon and AT&T, and GPS manufacturers like Garmin and TomTom.

Also targeted for recruitment are insurance companies like Allstate and Geico and public safety groups including - inexplicably -- MADD, the very group that the DOT-backed anti-distracted driving group was patterned after. The National Transportation Safety Board has praised the Department's anti-distracted driving effort but according to the proposal, "the face of DRIVE" would be former NTSB Chairman Jim Hall, who works for Seward Square Group, one of the two lobbying firms that authored the document.

Secretary LaHood is set to hold a press conference on Wednesday to address what the DOT described as "a nascent lobbying effort that aims to counter the national anti-distracted driving movement" and "undermine efforts to combat texting and talking on cell phones while driving." Among those joining LaHood at the press conference will be Jim Hall, the former NTSB chief who the lobbying firms proposed tapping to front their new coalition.

  • Carter Yang

    Carter Yang is a Washington, D.C.-based producer for the CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley. He covers aviation and transportation.