Dealing with distracted drivers not federal issue

Federal involvement could result in a political backlash that would do more harm than good.

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Last year well over 5,000 people were killed in crashes caused by distracted drivers.

That's a disturbing statistic. These deaths could have been prevented.

This is why the federal government wants to get involved. The Obama administration, through the U.S. Department of Transportation, wants to see a national network of tough laws and enforcement of those laws to reduce the number of distracted drivers on the road.

The goal is laudable. Yet, the federal government must tread carefully in pushing for new laws and beefed-up enforcement.

Traffic laws are approved and enforced by states. This is not a federal issue.

Yes, the federal government does get involved at times, but through a perhipheral way. For example, the federal government wants states to limit highway speeds so it withholds funding for highways until states comply. States do comply, but not always easily.

If the federal government starts tying highway funding to laws banning cell-phone use there will be a backlash. It could get ugly.

And why? States are already, albeit slowly, taking action aimed at reducing the number of distracted drivers.

Thirty states, including Washington, now have laws that prohibited texting while driving. Eight states, including Washington, ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones.

But these laws were not approved by Washington's Legislature without heated debated. Even now, many bristle at the cell-phone ban. Others simply ignore it. Stand on any street corner in Walla Walla for five minutes and watch driver after driver zip through the intersection while yakking.

Ironically, the ban on hand-held cell phones might not being doing much good anyway. Studies have shown that drivers on cell phones, hand-held or hands-free, are just as impaired as legally drunk drivers. Talking on the cell phone reduced reaction time by 9 percent.

State lawmakers have seen these studies but don't have the political will to take on an outright ban. People (voters) love their cell phones and these elected officials understand that. They love their cell phones, too.

Now, what are the chances state legislatures, even those with laws on the book, will bow to the federal pressure without a fight? Zero.

In fact, state lawmakers will see an opportunity to make political points by taking on the federal government, which seems to be pretty unpopular right now. An ugly battle could actually make this situation worse.

Yes, the Department of Transportation can -- and should -- point out the dangers of distracted driving. But leave making laws and enforcing those laws to the states.

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