U.S. seeks help from carmakers on distracted driving

WASHINGTON Fri Jan 21, 2011 11:15am EST

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will seek help from Detroit automakers next week on his campaign to combat distracted driving.

While he has pounded the bully pulpit, held high-profile media events and facilitated a limited texting-and-driving ban over the past year, LaHood dealt carefully with car companies whose interior electronics are key selling points.

Carmakers have accelerated offerings of souped-up navigation and entertainment systems to boost sales, which surged in 2010 following historic, recession-driven lows.

The government, which owns a third of General Motors Co and 10 percent of Chrysler following their federally supported bankruptcies, is mindful of heavy handed action against industry that might impact business and jobs.

LaHood has already held meetings with GM chief executive Dan Akerson and overseas manufactures and plans to visit executives of Ford Motor Co and Chrysler, which is run by Italy's Fiat SpA, next Tuesday in Detroit.

LaHood has not pressed industry to address hands-free phone applications or other gadgets that some safety advocates deem distracting and said the Detroit meetings would have an open agenda. He suggested companies could sponsor public service or other advertisements on distracted driving.

"We believe the automakers can be partners and we need their help," LaHood said.

"They spend enormous amounts of money selling their products, which they have to do. We understand that. We hope that they will put their creative juices to work to solve this problem."

Auto advertising rose nearly 24 percent to $9.15 billion through the first nine months of 2010, according to industry data for 2010.

The Obama administration would support a national ban on texting while driving, but LaHood said he would leave that up to Congress. Thirty states have texting bans in place and eight states have banned cell phone use by younger drivers.

More than 5,400 crash-related deaths and 400,000 injuries occurred in distracting driving related crashes in 2009, U.S. figures show.

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