Senate GOP Continues to Resist Sanctions-Based Distracted Driving Rules

The Senate environment committee's senior Republican yesterday joined his counterpart on the commerce panel in criticizing legislation that would withhold federal highway funding from states that fail to crack down on distracted driving, casting doubt on Congress' ability to approve any punitive approach to reining in texting and cell phone use by drivers.

080927_1A_Distracted_Drivin.jpg(Photo: SCnow.com)

At transport safety hearing in the environment panel -- which is working on a new six-year infrastructure bill that could see action in the upper chamber this year -- Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) ruled out any attempt to use federal money as leverage in encouraging stronger state safety rules.

"What I oppose is forcing a one-size-fits-all Washington solution on all states ... that withholds highway funds from states that do not enact specific laws," Inhofe said.

In response to environment committee chairman Barbara Boxer's (D-CA) assertion that "we have seen tremendous cooperation on the safety part of this bill," Inhofe added that "if there's any division up here ...  it's going to be over the role of the states."

Inhofe's comments follow questions raised by Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX), the commerce committee's senior GOP member and co-sponsor of a competing bill that uses federal grants as an incentive to coax states into passing new distracted driving laws.

"I don't think we should get into states rights," Hutchison said in November.

The concept of yanking federal funds from states that fail to rein in drivers' texting and cell phone use is modeled after seat-belt and drunk-driving laws passed in recent decades. Guarding against drunk driving is far from a moribund issue, however; Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) used yesterday's hearing to press the Obama administration on his proposal to require the installation of ignition interlocks for six months in the cars of convicted drunk drivers.

The interlocks are small sensors that test a driver's breath for alcohol before permitting them to start their vehicle. After Lautenberg cited Centers for Disease Contol (CDC) research that found rearrests of convicted drunk drivers dropped by 73 percent after the installation of interlocks in their cars, U.S. DOT No. 2 John Porcari agreed that the devices could soon be in wider use as a road safety tool.