Lobbyists scrap plans to defend cellphone use in cars

A tech industry lobbying group has abandoned its efforts to keep gadget use in cars legal after criticism from transportation secretary Ray LaHood.

Lobbying firm Seward Square Group had been putting together what it called the DRIVE coalition, campaigning against moves to limit driver distraction.

It was aiming to recruit members such as Motorola, T-Mobile, Verizon, Nokia, Microsoft and TomTom, as well as car makers.

But it went a little too far for some. An internal document from the group, obtained by campaigning website FairWarning,  paints device makers, not car crash victims, as the injured parties.

“In less than 6 months, a benign debate about teens and texting has morphed into a full-throttle assault on mobile technology,” the document claims.

“With industries remaining silent, national transportation authorities and media celebrities have hijacked the debate, a dire consequence to reasonable regulation.”

LaHood said he was stunned to hear about the activities of the group. “Regardless of what a powerful lobbying group has to say, the simple fact is that texting and talking on cell phones behind the wheel is a deadly epidemic,” he says.

“With nearly 6,000 deaths and more than half a million injuries from distracted driving in 2008 – each of them completely preventable – we will continue to encourage drivers to put down their devices and keep their minds on the road.”

It seems that Seward Square had actually managed to recruit Jim Hall, a former head of the National Transportation Safety Board, to head its campaign. But yesterday he distanced himself from its efforts. At a conference organized by LaHood, he said: “The only effort I’m going to have anything to do with is to support Secretary LaHood and these safety advocates.”

The group now says it intends to focus on driver education, rather than on lobbying. LaHood says on his blog that he’s pleased.