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Pretty Please: U.S. DOT Asks Carmakers to Limit Onboard Distractions

Is two seconds enough time for this guy to avoid hitting the child in front of his car? Image: Fast Lane

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s signature issue has been distracted driving. He’s spent the last four years amplifying the heartbreaking voices of those who have suffered the consequences of this highly dangerous habit. The stories of the needless loss of so many people, especially children and teens, are tragic.

Clearly, it’s time to take decisive action to stop distracted driving.

But apparently it’s not clear to everyone. Automakers have only upped the distraction ante, putting touch screens in their cars with more and more features — GPS, fuel efficiency monitoring, audio and climate controls, limitless apps, and finally, social media. How did we ever live without making dinner reservations or updating our Facebook status while driving?

And how do our anti-distraction heroes at U.S. DOT respond? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is issuing a short list of voluntary guidelines they’re asking carmakers to adopt, to discourage “the introduction of excessively distracting devices in vehicles.”

Remember the good old days, when drivers' only distractions were fiddling with the radio dial and telling kids they weren't there yet? Photo: Fast Lane

In LaHood’s words, they include:

  • Limiting — to 2 seconds at a time and 12 seconds total — the time drivers must take their eyes off the road to operate in-car technology;
  • Disabling texting, social media, and web browsing features unless a vehicle is stopped and in park; and
  • Disabling video-based calling and conferencing unless a vehicle is stopped and in park.

According to Distraction.gov, a project of U.S. DOT, the 4.6 seconds it takes to send or read a text message is long enough to drive the length of entire football field at 55 mph, and looking at your phone is like driving that football field blindfolded. “It’s extraordinarily dangerous,” the website says. But NHTSA’s two second rule still accepts the idea of drivers speeding down almost half a football field blindfolded.

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LaHood: Zero Tolerance for Drivers Who Disrespect Cyclists

Secretary Ray LaHood (left) and Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn (right) ride along the Riverwalk to kick off U.S. DOT's bike safety summit. Photo: City of Tampa, via Fast Lane

First there was “Click It or Ticket.” Then there was Mothers Against Drunk Driving. Now, U.S. DOT is campaigning to end another life-threatening behavior: disrespecting cyclists.

“We need to develop zero tolerance for people who don’t respect cyclists,” Secretary Ray LaHood said yesterday at the first of two national bike safety summits hosted by U.S. DOT this month. “That’s the campaign we’re kicking off today.”

At yesterday’s summit in Tampa, Florida, LaHood announced a new, long-term, national-level campaign to improve bicycle and pedestrian safety through aggressive education, enforcement and engineering.

“It’s simple,” LaHood said yesterday. “When you build a road, build a bike lane. When you’re fixing up your street, build in a bike lane. Do that, and we’ll be supportive of that at the national level.”

“Another simple thing,” LaHood went on. “We need to make sure people driving here have respect for bicyclists. Bicyclists have as much right to the road as they do.”

“If someone is not respectful of cyclists, there’s a penalty,” he said. “That’s it in a nutshell.”

The secretary conceded that improving conditions for bicyclists will not happen overnight, but he made a promise to the more than 200 planners, advocates and bicycle professionals in the audience that U.S. DOT “will not stop until the number of bicyclists killed on our roads is zero.”

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LaHood Announces Safety Summits to Help Shape New Bikeway Standards

In 2010, DOT Secretary Ray LaHood mounted a table at the National Bike Summit and proclaimed, “I’ve been all over America, and…people want alternatives. They want out of their cars, they want out of congestion, they want to live in… livable communities.” He added, to thunderous applause, “You’ve got a partner in Ray LaHood.”

Shortly thereafter he blogged, “People across America who value bicycling should have a voice when it comes to transportation planning. This is the end of favoring motorized transportation at the expense of non-motorized.”

Last night, LaHood addressed the same conference for his fifth and final time as DOT secretary. He echoed that sentiment: People across the country are hungry for safer streets for bicycling. He reflected on what he and the Obama administration had accomplished over the past four years, including awarding a record $3.8 billion of FHWA funding and $130 million in TIGER funds for bicycle and pedestrian projects.

But the secretary recognizes there is still more to be done. Bicyclists deaths grew by 9 percent from 2010 to 2011. And while LaHood is well known for his campaigns against unsafe behaviors like distracted driving, last night he called for increased, high-quality infrastructure to protect people who bike and prevent crashes.

LaHood told AASHTO last week that “DOT is looking to create a standard guide for how we will build modern streets that work for everyone who depends on them.” Last night, he told the crowd that DOT would hold two bike safety summits this spring, in which DOT will convene experts and advocates to get input into these new standards.

NYC DOT Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan followed LaHood. As the head of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, Sadik-Khan helped oversee the development of the Urban Bikeway Design Guide, which sets forth a well-conceived precedent for the feds to follow. She thanked LaHood heartily for his service and presented him with an honorary New York City street sign, and an offer to rename a real street after him. Maybe Prospect Park West, she joked, to the delight of the crowd.

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U.S. DOT to Challenge AASHTO Supremacy on Bike/Ped Safety Standards

For years, the federal government has adopted roadway guidelines that fall far short of what’s needed — and what’s possible — to protect cyclists and pedestrians. By “playing it safe” and sticking with old-school engineering, U.S. DOT allowed streets to be unsafe for these vulnerable road users.

But that could be changing. The bike-friendliest transportation secretary the country has ever seen told state transportation officials yesterday at AASHTO’s annual Washington conference that U.S. DOT was getting into the business of issuing its own design standards, instead of simply accepting the AASHTO guidelines.

LaHood told an audience of state transportation officials that the FHWA is getting into the roadway design business.

Normally, the Federal Highway Administration points people to AASHTO’s Green Book, the organization’s design guide for highways and streets — and indeed, the agency is still directing people to the 2001 edition of the Green Book. Cycling advocates have long criticized the AASHTO guide, and the FHWA’s adherence to it, since even the most recent version doesn’t incorporate the latest thinking in bicycle and pedestrian safety treatments.

In FHWA’s new round of rule-making, DOT will set its own bicycle and pedestrian safety standards for the first time. The agency will “highlight bicycle and pedestrian safety as a priority,” LaHood said. (You can watch his entire speech on AASHTO’s online TV channel.)

FHWA will rely heavily on input from AASHTO but also signaled that it would work with others to incorporate the full spectrum of bike/ped design best practices.

The National Association of City Transportation Officials publishes its own, much more cutting-edge, design guide for bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure. No one at U.S. DOT reached out to NACTO in advance of the AASHTO speech, but NACTO spokesperson Ron Thaniel said they have a “close working relationship with Secretary LaHood” and “look forward to working with him” on the new standards.

LaHood noted that he would be meeting with cyclists next week at the National Bike Summit here in Washington and that he would work with them on ways to improve infrastructure “to make biking and walking opportunities as safe as they possibly can be.”

But it was wise of him to make his announcement at AASHTO, not at the Bike Summit. He seems to be trying to bring AASHTO into the fold of a movement to embrace more innovative bikeway designs. “I’m asking [the cycling community] for their help but I’m asking you to be helpful also,” he told the state officials. “I know that most of you want to build the 21st century infrastructure that your communities need to be competitive. The problem is we don’t have modern-day roadway standards to help us bring these ideas to life.”

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Ray LaHood: “It’s Not Just About Emissions”

This is the third and final installment of our exit interview with departing U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood. In the first, he talked about his proudest accomplishments, why he decided to leave, and why it’s important to fund bike/ped improvements with federal dollars – and he made it clear he’s still not giving us any answers about where to find more money for transportation. In the second, he talked about Republicans who get it, why TIGER was a game-changer – and he let slip some good news about the Chicago Riverwalk. Part three is more of a grab-bag — I hadn’t expected to get almost 40 minutes one-on-one with the secretary!

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood will be leaving his post soon. Photo: Fast Lane

Tanya Snyder: You mentioned high-speed rail. In California, the line is going to cost upwards of $68 billion. The federal government has put in about three and the funding is still a big question mark there. Do you think that, in the future, going forward with the high-speed rail program, it would make sense to pick sites where the federal government could put in a more substantial proportion of the final funding?

Ray LaHood: High-speed rail is not going to be accomplished by the federal government putting an enormous amount of money in. The money is just not here. And so what we have done is we jump-started passenger rail in America and asked private businesses to come in and make a commitment, to make an investment.

I traveled to 16 or 18 countries in the first two years in this job, looking at high-speed rail. And every place that I went, I asked people come to America, make an investment, hire American workers, and build these trains in America. And now there are a lot of companies in California, in Illinois, along the Northeast Corridor, in Nevada, thinking about making investments.

We’re not going to accomplish our passenger rail, our high-speed rail dreams and aspirations with funding coming from Washington. Some of it can. But the lion’s share will have to be private investment and the states’ commitment to this.

In California, the assembly there passed last year the selling of bonds, between $6 billion and $10 billion worth of bonds. That’s a huge investment. In Illinois, the governor there has made huge investments in high-speed rail. We’ve made some, but he’s made some, and private companies have made some. This is going to have to be a true public-private partnership in order to get this accomplished, and frankly, that’s what happened in Europe and Asia, too.

TS: There was an Anderson Cooper segment a couple weeks ago that underlined for me the fact that maybe the message really hasn’t gotten out about higher-speed rail — that that was part of this package too. It’s not just about getting trains over 110 mph but it’s also about getting trains that have been going 30 mph up to 70 mph. Do you feel like that’s a message that hasn’t really come across? That people see “high-speed rail” and think it should be going 220?

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Ray LaHood: “Sitting on the Sidelines Doesn’t Accomplish Anything”

What follows is the second installment of an exit interview I conducted with departing Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood on Tuesday. In the first installment, he talked about what he’s proudest of, why he decided to leave, and why it’s important to fund bike/ped improvements with federal dollars. I also gave him one last chance to duck a question about how to increase revenues. We’ll run the third part tomorrow.

Time is running out on LaHood's term as DOT secretary. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Tanya Snyder: Republicans believe that bicycle and pedestrian, and often transit, funding shouldn’t come out of the same protected fund as roads. Do you think that’s an ideological position or do you think that’s industry influence talking?

Ray LaHood: When it comes to transportation, we need to have people with a vision. People that understand that DOT is not just about roads and bridges anymore. It’s about a comprehensive view of transportation. It’s about many different alternatives. The people are way ahead of some of these politicians, and have been. It’ll be up to common, ordinary citizens to convince their leaders — whether it be mayors or governors or members of Congress — that a vision for transportation is not restricted to just roads and bridges. It has to be a wide, broad view of many alternatives.

Now, there are Republicans with a vision. [Gov.] Rick Snyder in Michigan accepted high-speed rail money to fix up the route between Detroit and Chicago. [California Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger was one of the first governors to accept high-speed rail money. So there are some Republicans that do have a vision about this. We’re going to find out whether any of them are in Congress or not.

But it’ll be up to the people to hold these elected officials’ feet to the fire when it comes to having a vision about transportation that’s more than just about roads and bridges.

TS: When you look at Congress, specifically the Republicans but really Congress in general, how is it different than 10 years ago, or 20 years ago when you started in Congress?

RL: For example, when I served on the Transportation Committee, we passed two [surface transportation] bills in a very bipartisan way. We passed two bills with 75 people on the committee, and everybody voted for it. And this was with a Republican majority! This was with Bud Shuster as the chair of the committee. This was a group of people that did have a vision about transportation.

Now, the resources were there also. We funded almost all of it out of the highway trust fund. It’s different now, because there are limited resources and people have a different view. But there’s still quite a bit of leadership, I think. Certainly there are people with a vision in the group that put together the transportation bill, plussing up the TIFIA program to allow for communities to do big projects was a big step forward.

TS: I wanted to ask about the story behind the TIGER program. How did it come together?

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The Ray LaHood Exit Interview

I had the chance to sit down with Ray LaHood yesterday morning before he spoke to the U.S. High-Speed Rail Association. Our conversation covered a wide range of topics, looking back on his four years at the helm of the U.S. Department of Transportation. We’ll publish the interview in three installments over the next few days. Here’s the first part.

Ray LaHood reflects on the best job he's ever had. Photo: Tanya Snyder

Tanya Snyder: There was a long lead up to your announcement, a little bit beyond where a lot of other Cabinet members announced their intentions. What was going on then?

Ray LaHood: I had met with the president after his re-election and we talked about the future. He made it clear to me that he wanted me to stay and thought it was important for me to stay. And I was very conflicted because I think it’s really time for me to move on, and even though we have a lot of significant projects going on, and programs, I still felt it was time for somebody else to have this opportunity.

So the president asked me to think about my decision and I did think about it for a while, but eventually I just felt it was time for me to do something else.

And as I’ve said, this is the best job I’ve ever had. It’s a great job. It’s a job where you can really get a lot of good things done, a lot of significant things.

We started out with the economic recovery, $48 billion. We did CAFE. We did a lot of stuff with our colleagues at the FAA. We traveled the country in collaboration with our colleagues from HUD and EPA talking about livable and sustainable communities. We implemented a whole new streetcar project around the country. We implemented the president’s vision for high-speed rail.

I think that for the first time in the history of DOT, people actually knew who the secretary was — and also knew that DOT was not just about building roads and bridges. It was about building communities. It was about engaging community leaders, and mayors, and stakeholders in the biking area, in the green community, and really giving people alternatives in transportation. So if they wanted to get out of their car, they could bike to work. If they wanted to develop a streetcar project, that the potential was there for it.

I think you’ll see a pretty bold vision from the president, bolder than in the first term.

We developed partnerships all over the country, and not only with the biking community, the high-speed rail community, mayors, governors, people who really wanted to get things done in transportation.

This was a very, very tough decision for me. I think the potential is there to continue to make a lot of progress — particularly with the president’s vision.

TS: You know better than anyone what makes for a good secretary of transportation. What should the president look for in picking a new secretary?

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How Will the Next Transpo Secretary Build on Ray LaHood’s Legacy?

Photo from the White House, via Daily Kos

He strung it out long enough, but Ray LaHood has finally announced that he’s resigning as Transportation Secretary. Speculation has been rampant for months about who could replace him, and now it kicks into high gear.

Matt Yglesias captured the sentiments of many transportation advocates when he tweeted yesterday, “Ray LaHood was a surprisingly good DOT secretary, but it’d be great to see Obama give the job to a real expert next.”

What qualities will the next Transportation Secretary have?

There are political considerations that could win out over technical know-how. Given that this appointment will be made at the tail end of a Cabinet nomination process where President Obama has been criticized for nominating too many white men, he may look to U.S. DOT as a place to correct that error.

“Transportation is often viewed as place to check a box,” said Joshua Schank, president of the Eno Center on Transportation. “If you look at the last five transportation secretaries – [Federico] Peña, [Rodney] Slater, [Norman] Mineta, [Mary] Peters, LaHood – all of them checked the box.”

“Not that they didn’t have other qualifications,” Schank is quick to add. “They did. But they all checked a box of some sort.”

But another insider, speaking on background, said that it was “self-serving” for people in the industry to demand an expert “because they want it to be one of us.” He said that not being an expert worked to LaHood’s favor because he didn’t already have strong opinions about everything. In that way, the source said, LaHood was able to avoid getting bogged down.

Don’t expect the next secretary to share LaHood’s zeal for bicycling and transit. Given all the qualities and qualifications the administration will be looking for, they probably won’t institute a litmus test for whether a person looks comfortable in a bike helmet.

But perhaps all isn’t lost. “I don’t think Ray LaHood was a pedestrian and bicycle advocate when he came to the job,” said Schank. “I think he was influenced by the people at DOT and the people in the White House.” Maybe those same people will work their magic on his successor.

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It’s Official: LaHood Is Out

Should I stay or should I go? LaHood decides to go. Photo: FoxNews

After a few false alarms, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has finally come out and said it: He’s leaving the administration.

In a letter sent to U.S. DOT staff and contractors this morning, he listed the accomplishments of the last four years:

We have put safety front and center with the Distracted Driving Initiative and a rule to combat pilot fatigue that was decades in the making.  We have made great progress in improving the safety of our transit systems, pipelines, and highways, and in reducing roadway fatalities to historic lows.  We have strengthened consumer protections with new regulations on buses, trucks, and airlines.

We helped jumpstart the economy and put our fellow Americans back to work with $48 billion in transportation funding from the American Recovery and Investment Act of 2009, and awarded over $2.7 billion in TIGER grants to 130 transportation projects across the Nation.  We have made unprecedented investments in our nation’s ports.  And we have put aviation on a sounder footing with the FAA reauthorization, and secured funding in the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act to help States build and repair their roads, bridges and transit systems.

Transportation reformers would add to that list LaHood’s support for intercity rail and active transportation. Throughout his tenure he has made the case for investing in bicycling (sometimes while standing on a table), high-speed rail, and livability initiatives through the TIGER grant program.

LaHood had said in the fall of 2011 that he didn’t intend to stay for a second term, but he’d since backpedaled. Insiders said he may not have meant to make any definitive statements and was still deciding what to do. He’s told the AP that he liked working for President Obama and considered it the “best job I’ve ever had in public service” — a sentiment he repeated in his letter this morning.

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What Does It Mean That LaHood Isn’t on the Second-Term List? Nothing.

Right there on his lapel is one major reason transportation reformers hope Ray LaHood stays on a while longer as transportation secretary. Photo: CBS

A White House official yesterday named three Cabinet members who are staying on for Obama’s second term and set off a storm of speculation about those he didn’t name — among them, Ray LaHood.

The fact is no one knows yet whether the transportation secretary will stay on for the second term or not, or for a part of it, as he has indicated. More than a year ago, LaHood told an LA Times reporter he wouldn’t stay past 2012, but rumor has it he hadn’t meant to make any definitive statements and has since backpedaled.

And now, even as the media spin headlines out of the fact that LaHood was left off an admittedly unofficial and not comprehensive list of returning Cabinet members, sources inside U.S. DOT say there’s no news. The last we heard — last month — LaHood was still waiting for the end of the fiscal cliff negotiations to sit down with President Obama and figure out whether he’d be staying on.

It’s a sign that transportation officials — and the media — are so anxious to know LaHood’s fate that many jumped to conclusions when the White House official didn’t include him in the list of remaining Cabinet members. But there’s still no news.