Secretary LaHood Talks Cell Phones, Light Rail, Cooperation

Stopping distracted driving and encouraging bipartisanship are top of secretary’s priority list.
April 23, 2012

In a wide-ranging town-hall style discussion in GW’s Jack Morton Auditorium, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood touched on bipartisanship in the White House and Congress, Americans’ interest in light rail and other public transit options and his personal campaign to stop distracted driving. The event, “On the Go: Ensuring a Quality Transportation System,” was sponsored by GW’s Graduate School of Political Management.

GSPM Director Mark Kennedy introduced the secretary and highlighted his commitment to democracy—even when the institution seems, like a highway project, to be perpetually under construction.

“He, like us at GSPM, is committed to making democracy work,” Mr. Kennedy said. “He represents the kind of full-spectrum, bipartisan approach of looking for how we can help democracy work. As a Republican working in a Democratic administration, Secretary LaHood is committed to finding what unites us, not what divides us.”

After briefly describing his political background, Mr. LaHood touched on the topic he’s made a mainstay during his tenure as secretary: the Department of Transportation’s campaign to end distracted driving, especially as it’s connected to cell phone use.

“Does anybody in the room not own a cell phone or a BlackBerry?” he asked, holding up his cell phone. All hands remained down. “Distracted driving is an epidemic because we all own these, and we all use them wherever we go. Some people are using them right now—it’s OK, I’m not insulted,” he said, to audience laughter. “What I do get mad about is when we use them while we’re driving.”

When Mr. LaHood became secretary and DOT started its distracted driving campaign, only eight states had distracted driving laws. Today, 38 states have passed laws.

“We’re making progress. Twenty years after the Click It or Ticket [seatbelt] campaign, and good laws and good enforcement, 86 percent of us buckle up as soon as we get into a car….We also don’t tolerate drunk driving anymore. Ten years from now, that’s where I’d like us to be on this. Put [cell phones] away while driving. There’s no phone call or message that can’t wait.”

Most of the town hall event was dedicated to audience questions, which ranged from the outlook for specific transportation projects, like a train system to connect Scranton, Pa., to Philadelphia or New York City, to Mr. LaHood’s thoughts on raising the weight limits above 80,000 pounds for six-axle trucks.

Several audience members also questioned President Obama’s commitment to bipartisanship and whether Mr. LaHood thought the president was doing enough to encourage bipartisan cooperation in Congress.

Mr. LaHood, who organized four bipartisan retreats when he was serving as a Republican representative for Illinois, said he believes President Obama is extremely committed to bipartisanship, but that many members of the Republican Party in Congress are unwilling to compromise because they don’t want the president to be able to cite political successes in an election year.

“I don’t agree with that,” Mr. LaHood said. “‘My way or the highway’ means that nothing happens—nothing. Compromise is what works.”

Mr. LaHood also stressed that his department needs the support of states and governors to make projects like high-speed rail systems a reality, citing the case of Florida, where, in early 2011, Gov. Rick Scott declined $2.3 billion in federal funds designated for rail development. Other states immediately submitted requests for the funding.

“There’s a pent-up demand in America for high-speed rail,” he said. “We’re off to a good start. In three and a half years, we’ve invested $10 billion.” He predicted that high-speed rail will be a reality in parts of California, Illinois and the Northeast Corridor within the next 20 to 30 years.

Mr. LaHood also touted graduated licensing requirements for young drivers and better curriculum on distracted driving in driver education programs, but emphasized to the audience that young people can turn the tide on cell-phone related driving fatalities.

“Everyone needs to take personal responsibility on texting and driving and cell phones while driving,” he said. “We’re really focusing on making even more of an effort there.”

The secretary appeared to be committed to practicing what he preaches. Twice during his presentation, his cell phone rang—both calls from his wife. He didn’t answer either call.