- The Washington Times - Friday, October 2, 2009

President Obama on Thursday ordered 3 million federal employees to stop texting while driving, saying he wants them to set an example for the rest of the country.

His only challenge now is how to enforce it.

In a three-page executive order Mr. Obama said federal employees are not to text while they are driving government vehicles - or even while driving their own vehicles, if they are on official business or using government-supplied devices.

“Text messaging causes drivers to take their eyes off the road and at least one hand off the steering wheel, endangering both themselves and others,” the president said.

But he has left the hard decisions about how to enforce his order to the individual federal agencies. The administration said they will have 90 days to decide how to identify and punish offending drivers.

“Each agency has different demands and different circumstances,” said Tom Gavin, a spokesman for the White House Office of Management and Budget.

Mr. Gavin said he didn’t want to speculate on how the agencies might go about spotting offenders. But states and cities across the country already have tried.

Seven states and the District of Columbia have banned talking on hand-held cell phones while driving, and the District and 18 states prohibit texting from behind the wheel.

Underscoring the semantic challenge posed by such an undertaking, the executive order had to define exactly what Mr. Obama meant by “driving” for the purposes of his texting ban. He defined it as “operating a motor vehicle on an active roadway with the motor running, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic light or stop sign, or otherwise.”

But texting once one has pulled over to the side of the road - “with or without the motor running” - is OK, the president said.

Mr. Obama also called on agencies to try to push the same rules on their contractors and subcontractors, arguing that will make those workers more efficient.

Some safety advocates have called for a nationwide ban. In Congress, Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, authored a bill that would withhold highway funding for states that don’t impose such measures.

But not all mobile devices are dangerous, according to the American Trucking Association, one of several groups that have expressed reservations about broad legislation. ATA spokesman Clayton Boyce noted that the use of Global Positioning System devices, for example, would be unlawful under a nationwide ban.

“The only concern we have is possible unintended consequences,” Mr. Boyce said. “GPS does have value as a safety device and has to be looked at carefully.”

The order gives Cabinet heads the authority to exempt employees engaged in law enforcement or national security activities.

• Kara Rowland can be reached at krowland@washingtontimes.com.

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