Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood called distracted driving a "menace to society" Wednesday, kicking off a two-day meeting on preventing drivers from using mobile devices behind the wheel.
The Obama administration reported that nearly 6,000 people were killed and a half-million injured last year in vehicle crashes connected to driver distraction, a striking indication of the dangers of talking on cell phones and texting while driving.
"To put it plainly, distracted driving is a menace to society," LaHood told more than 300 participants at the government's 'distracted driving summit.' "Distracted driving is an epidemic and it seems to be getting worse every year."
The Transportation Department brought together experts to take a hard look at the highway hazards caused by drivers talking on cell phones or texting from behind the wheel. LaHood said he would offer recommendations Thursday that could lead to new restrictions on using the devices while driving.
Congress is watching closely. Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., who will address the gathering, and other Democrats introduced legislation in July that would require states to ban texting or e-mailing while operating a moving vehicle or lose 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding. The Obama administration has not taken a position on the bill.
Prior to the meeting, LaHood said the administration would "work with Congress" to develop ways of curbing distracted driving. The meeting would solicit ideas to address the problem "similar to what went on with seat belts and (blood-alcohol limits of) 0.08 where you really educate the public, where you tell people that they have to take personal responsibility for these things."
Ultimately, LaHood said, he wanted the meeting to set "the stage for finding ways to eliminate texting while driving."
Previous efforts to reduce drunken driving and encourage motorists to wear seat belts taught the government a "valuable lesson," LaHood said. "We need a combination of strong laws, tough enforcement and ongoing public education to make a difference."
Transportation officials said in a research report that 5,870 people were killed and 515,000 were injured last year in crashes where at least one form of driver distraction was reported. Driver distraction was involved in 16 percent of all fatal crashes in 2008.
LaHood said on any given day last year, more than 800,000 vehicles were driven by someone using a hand-held cell phone during the day.
The panel of government officials, safety advocates, researchers and lawmakers hoped to develop a consensus on the roadway hazards and hear warnings from young adults who caused car accidents because they were texting while driving.
The new data underscored the major problem of distractions involving young drivers. The greatest proportion of distracted drivers were those age 20 and under. Sixteen percent of all under-20 drivers involved in fatal crashes were reported to have been distracted while driving, the government said.
Eighteen states and the District of Columbia have passed laws making texting while driving illegal and seven states and the District have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Many safety groups have urged a nationwide ban on texting and on using handheld mobile devices while behind the wheel.
In July, the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that when drivers of heavy trucks texted, their collision risk was 23 times greater. Dialing a cell phone and using or reaching for an electronic device increased risk of collision about six times in cars and trucks.
The Virginia Tech researchers found the risks of texting generally applied to all drivers, not just truckers. A separate report by Car and Driver magazine found that texting and driving is more dangerous than drunken driving.