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Senior Dem Senator to Offer Competing Plan to Limit Distracted Driving

4:22 PM EDT on October 15, 2009

Few if any policy-makers are prepared to defend the dangerous practice of using cell phones and texting behind the wheel. But even as reining in distracted driving gets a higher profile, there is some difference of opinion over whether to use carrots or sticks.

threatlevel_rockefeller_200x_3.jpgSenate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) (Photo: Wired)

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) prefers carrots, telling the Los Angeles Times this week that he plans to introduce legislation offering federal aid to states that pass laws banning drivers from using phones and texting devices.

Yet four senators, led by Robert Menendez (D-NJ) and Charles Schumer (D-NY), already have endorsed the sticks approach, proposing a bill in July that would withhold 25 percents of states' federal highway money if anti-distracted driving laws are not passed within two years.

The Times reports, without attribution, that Rockefeller's "incentive approach probably would have a better chance at passage than punitive legislation" such as Menendez and Schumer's bill. In fact, ten House members already have proposed legislation that would align with the July Senate proposal.

Its chances of passage aside, however, Rockefeller's incentivized plan -- co-sponsored by Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) -- would be more likely to win backing from the Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA), which represents state DOTs' highway safety officials.

The GHSA made headlines over the summer when it embraced a ban on texting while driving, but it later released a more detailed policy proposal that stated: "[T]he federal government does not need to sanction states that do not pass cell phone or texting while driving bans."

Instead, the GHSA suggested that Washington pay for state-level research on how best to enforce texting bans and provide "financial incentives for states" that set up tiered drivers' licenses for teenagers to prevent them from using texting devices.

Rockefeller's committee is slated to host senior Obama administration officials in two weeks for a hearing on distracted driving. One co-sponsor of the Menendez-Schumer approach, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), sits on the Commerce panel.

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