The movement against “distracted driving— has reached Capitol Hill, with Members of Congress poised to create a House rule prohibiting staffers from texting while driving.
Rep. Robert Brady (D-Pa.), who heads the House Administration Committee, came up with the rule on the heels of an executive order from President Barack Obama that bans federal employees from texting while driving a government-owned vehicle or using government equipment. Brady’s resolution would work much the same way: Staffers wouldn’t be allowed to text on their House-issued BlackBerrys when driving or text on any device when they were driving on “official business.—
Kyle Anderson, Brady’s spokesman, conceded that the move is symbolic; after all, enforcing the rule is difficult and no penalties are laid out in the resolution’s language.
But, he said, “it certainly sets the example, and it helps to ensure their safety. … It sends a message to employees and staff that this is dangerous behavior.—
Of course, staffers in the Washington, D.C., area already risk a ticket if they text and drive — D.C., Virginia and Maryland all have laws against it. In total, 18 states have outlawed it to varying degrees, and a bill is making its way through Wisconsin’s Legislature.
Anderson said he didn’t have any information on how staffers would be reprimanded if they broke the rule. For example, if a staffer is caught texting on his work phone by police in Alexandria, Va., will he also be reprimanded by his employing office?
At the National Transportation Safety Board a similar prohibition that extends to all official cell phone use — texting, e-mailing and hands-free talking included — has so far become more of a policy than a reason to reprimand employees. If an employee answers a phone while driving, he is instructed to immediately hang up, NTSB spokesman Ted Lopatkiewicz said.
“There really hasn’t been discussion on punitive actions. It’s a rule for safety reasons,— he said. “All I can say is there really has been no pushback from anybody and no objections that we’ve heard from employees.—
Barbara Harsha, executive director for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said that having such a ban in the House regulations enables Congress to hold staffers responsible if they are caught texting behind the wheel.
“I think this is very consistent with what’s going in the states and consistent with [Obama’s] executive order,— she said. “I do think it’s a good thing. I’m glad to see it.—
In the House, the ban seems to be a precursor to bills that would push states to enact text-messaging bans. Last week, Brady introduced a bill called the Fighting Occupied Cell Use So Everyone Drives More Safely Act, or the FOCUS Act. It would reduce the amount of federal highway funding for those states that do not enact a law prohibiting the use of a mobile phone or “portable electronic communication device— while driving.
Another House bill from Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), introduced in September, would withhold funding if states don’t enact bans on text messaging while driving. A Senate bill from Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) is similar.
So far, none of the bills has Republican co-sponsors. But the House resolution at least has bipartisan support. House Administration ranking member Dan Lungren (R-Calif.) supports the idea, and the committee just needs to pass the resolution to make it a House regulation.
“He is supportive of a resolution as texting while driving is dangerous and in many states illegal and something that staff should be discouraged from doing,— spokeswoman Salley Wood said.
The committee was set to discuss the ban Wednesday, but the scheduled markup was postponed after Capitol Police evacuated the Longworth House Office Building (where the committee is located) for a false fire alarm.
Correction: Oct. 23, 2009
The article misidentified a national transportation safety group. It is the Governors Highway Safety Association.