U.S. officials split on "hands free" ban for drivers

(Reuters) - In a public split, the Obama administration’s pointman on transportation sharply disagreed with a proposal by the top U.S. transportation safety investigator for a ban on hands-free calling while driving.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made distracted driving his signature safety issue, said the focus should be on texting and hand-held cell calls, not fast-growing new technology that allows drivers to talk while keeping their hands on the wheel.

“That is not the big problem in America,” LaHood told reporters. “Most people don’t put Bluetooth or Sync in their cars because they can’t afford it. Everybody has a cell phone in their hand and it’s held up to their ear while they’re driving.”

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman issued a sweeping proposal last week for states to outlaw cell use while driving, including hands-free devices, except in emergencies. Use of motorist assist programs, such as OnStar by General Motors Co, would still be permitted.

Hersman’s board has no rule-making authority, but its recommendations can carry weight with lawmakers and regulators. Safety experts say any blanket ban was not likely because it would be difficult to enforce.

LaHood has discussed hands-free technology with auto company executives, but has never asked them to stop putting it in vehicles.

“Our efforts are good laws and good enforcement, and personal responsibility,” LaHood said. “We’ll work with anyone who wants to get on board.”

Distracted driving killed more than 3,000 people in the United States last year, Transportation Department figures show.

Auto companies are heavily investing in hands-free wireless products, like Bluetooth or Ford Motor Co’s Sync communications and entertainment system. They are available in most 2012 models as standard or optional equipment.

Consumer experts say hand-free systems have become decision-makers for some consumers, especially younger buyers.

Reporting By John Crawley; editing by Andre Grenon