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Will Ray LaHood's anti-distracted driving legacy endure?


Ray LaHood has seldom kept his opinions to himself.

The country's U.S. Secretary of Transportation since 2008, LaHood early established a reputation for bluntness and rattling cages.

After Toyota recalled millions of vehicles around the world for faulty floor mats that could entrap the gas pedal, LaHood advised people who owned Toyota cars to "park them" immediately and not drive them until the company fixed the problem.

He later distanced himself from the startling pronouncement.

LaHood also angered many a car company executive for attacking sophisticated car infotainment systems as too distracting.  Those systems promise a new source of precious revenue for the automakers.

LaHood made one of his last appearances as Secretary of Transportation at a University of Michigan conference on connected vehicles this week.

He was asked what one thing he was most proud of having accomplished.  He listed three, two of which he credited to President Barack Obama - strict new CAFE guidelines, which will bring average passenger vehicle fuel economy to 54.5 by the year 2025 - and the $12 billion in federal funds to develop high speed rail.

The third accomplishment he claimed as his own - a relentless bully pulpit attack on distracted driving. 

LaHood repeatedly called attention to the dangers of using cell phones while driving, and especially the dangers of texting while driving, and he released numerous videos featuring people who lost loved ones in road accidents in which distracted driving played a key role.  Statistics indicate about 16% of all fatalities on the road involve a driver who was distracted, either by using a device like a cell phone, or some other source of distraction.

39 states currently ban texting while driving.  Only ten ban the use of hand-held cell phones while driving.  LaHood also chastised car companies for developing complicated infotainment systems that require the driver to take his or her hand off the wheel and eyes off the road. 

LaHood says he didn't know if his successor, Anthony Foxx, would pick up that particular mantle.  But he says he told Foxx to set his own priorities in his new job.

During his prepared remarks at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute's three-day conference on connected vehicles, LaHood says technologies that allow vehicles to communicate with each other hold great promise for reducing accidents.

But during a press conference afterwards, he was - as one might expect - frank about the downside.

"People buy cars for all kinds of reasons," he said.  "Because they look good.....but the bottom line is, the price.  And we have to not only make sure that the vehicle to vehicle (technology) is going to save lives and save injuries, but people are going to be looking at what  it costs.  So that will be a factor.  And the car manufacturers have to factor that in.  So, the answer is, let us collect the data - we know it's going to save lives, this technology is going to help people avoid accidents '...and it will be up to the car manufacturers to help us figure out what the cost of all this is going to be."

LaHood is expected to step down in about a month, after Congress confirms Foxx as the next U.S. Secretary of Transportation. 

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Radio. She began her career at Michigan Radio as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.