Lawmakers across the country have taken up the issue of distracted driving, considering laws to ban the use of cell phones and other mobile devices.  Now, Congress is joining in the act.

Senator Jay Rockefeller (D- W.Va.), as well as Senators Hutchinson (R-Texas), Lautenberg (D- N. J.), Schumer (D- N.Y.), Thune (R-S.D.), Klobuchar (D- Minn), and Vitter, (R-La.), introduced the “Distracted Driving Prevention Act” (S. 1938). The centerpiece of the legislation is a grant program for states that enact laws prohibiting hand-held cell phone use and texting while driving.  To qualify for the grant, the state legislation would have to entirely ban texting while driving, limit phone calls to hands-free devices, and prohibit anyone under age 18 from using cell phones at all while driving. 

People “are driving lethal weapons,” said Sen. Rockefeller during an October 28 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee.  He urged his colleagues to act, saying “I don’t think there’s time to wait on this,” and cited that last year 5,800 people were killed by distracted drivers.  At the hearing, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski and Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood each testified on the dangers of distracted driving and the roles of their agencies in improving driver safety. 

A week later, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y) and Rep. Jean Schmidt (R-Ohio) introduced H.R. 3994, a bill establishing the same grant program for states, and members of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce held a hearing on distracted driving on November 4.  Similar to the Senate bill, the House bill calls for a national education campaign on the dangers of distracted driving, data collection and reporting on the issue, and a report by the Federal Communications Commission on distracted driving technology.

In each hearing, members discussed whether a public education program would be sufficient to meet safety needs, whether federal regulation is needed, or whether the issue is best left to individual states.  Currently, 21 states and the District of Columbia ban all cell phone use by novice drivers, including both hand-held and hands-free phones, while 18 states and the District of Columbia prohibit text messaging by all drivers.

While the bill does not directly impact research calls, researchers should continue to conform to MRA’s recommended best practices by taking appropriate measures to ensure respondents’ safety.  MRA recommends that researchers encourage respondents to consider their own safety by asking about it directly (e.g., “Are you in a place where you can safely talk on the phone and answer my questions?”). If respondents indicate that they cannot safely talk, interviews should be ended quickly.

The legal system and legislative bodies have  yet to lay blame for accidents on the party calling a driver. Emphasis on the “yet”. As the legislation and laws on this matter evolve, continue to monitor the Legislative Updates for any developments and the Compliance Guide for best practices and guidelines.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this article is for guidance and informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice. MRA advises all parties to consult with private legal counsel regarding the interpretation and application of any laws to your business.