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Lobbyists try to reframe distracted driving issue

Responding to moves by state legislatures to restrict motorists’ use of cell phones and other devices, a major electronics industry trade group and a Washington lobbying firm have been pushing separate efforts to reframe the debate over the dangers of distracted driving, reports the New York Times. The efforts have angered public safety advocates, some legislators, and the Secretary of Transportation, who say such restrictions would save lives. A document that has been circulating over the last week from a Washington lobbying firm, the Seward Square Group, has fueled the tension. The document, a copy of which was posted by the web site FairWarning, says the distracted driving issue has been “hijacked” by national transportation authorities and celebrities like Oprah Winfrey, who has encouraged motorists to pledge to put down their devices. The document says that the auto and technology industries have become “collateral damage” in the debate. Babak Zafarnia, a public relations executive hired by Seward to be the coalition’s spokesman, said the idea was to emphasize driver education and to focus on broad driver-distraction laws, rather than focusing on the use of particular technologies. “You can’t anticipate every possible scenario. Distraction is distraction, period,” he said, adding: “Why don’t we modernize the education curriculum to teach drivers to deal with all in-vehicle distractions?” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who received a copy of the document from a public safety advocate, said he was “alarmed” by what he interpreted as an effort to undermine the creation of tough laws aimed at discouraging drivers from using electronic devices behind the wheel. The chief distraction problem, he said “is caused by people using cell phones and BlackBerrys, and to correct the behavior, you have to have tough laws with good enforcement.”

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