Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said today he does not support a proposal to prohibit drivers from making hands-free cell phone calls.
"The problem is not hands-free," LaHood told reporters at the department's headquarters, according to a Detroit News report. "That is not the big problem in America."
The pronouncement came a week after the National Transportation Safety Board urged states to ban the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while driving. The NTSB doesn't have the authority to actually impose restrictions, but its recommendations often influence federal regulators as well as congressional and state lawmakers.
Across the country, 35 states have already passed laws restricting text messaging while driving and nine require drivers use hands-free devices while talking on the phone. But the NTSB's recommendations go far beyond these current restrictions, suggesting that states also band hands-free calls.
But LaHood, a champion of distracted-driving laws, prefers to focus on handheld calls. In doing so, he has won the support of automakers, who have spent billions of dollars on technologies such as Ford's Sync to keep drivers connected.
"Anybody that wants to join the chorus against distracted driving, welcome aboard," LaHood said. "If other people want to work on hands-free, so be it."
The American Automobile Association estimates that one-third of U.S. drivers regularly use a cell phone while behind the wheel. In the first 11 months of this year, U.S. consumers have spent about $230 million on devices that allow hands-free phone calls, according consumer market researcher NPD Group.