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LaHood: Drivers should never use cell phones

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood says there is no way to drive safely when you're talking on a cell phone, even if you're using a hands-free device. In an interview with Bloomberg News, he said that even talking through hands-free technology is a "cognitive distraction."

"Last year, 5,500 people were killed as a result of distracted driving and half a million were injured," he tells NPR's Jennifer Ludden. "Those are big numbers. A lot of lives and a lot of injuries can be saved if people take personal responsibility ... and put their cell phone or Blackberry in the glove compartment."

While automakers seem to be headed in a different direction, installing new devices to help drivers stay more connected, LaHood says he thinks they can be part of the solution. He has personally called Subaru's CEO to compliment the company on a recent ad that discourages cell phone use while driving.

"We have support from the technology industry," LaHood says, in addition to some insurance companies.

The Transportation Department plans further research, and Secretary LaHood says he may push for Congress to institute a national ban on all cell phone use while driving.  If so, he'd follow similar moves by local units of government around the nation, including the City of Chicago.

But compliance and enforcement could present a problem since the devices are so ubiquitous. LaHood likens the battle to earlier campaigns to get drivers to buckle up.

"Now, because of good laws and good enforcement, 85 percent of people buckle up," he says.

He cites a recent effort in which Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., were each given grants to ramp up enforcement of cell phone bans.

"In four days, 5,000 tickets were written, combined," he says. It's a way to change "very dangerous behavior."

Copyright 2010 National Public Radio.

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