Transportation Secretary LaHood Answers Reader Questions

Later today, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood will be answering questions at the Consumers Union offices, where he’ll also be speaking on the topic of “Distracted Driving Shatters Lives: Helping Parents and Educators Reach Teens.” You can watch that event live on the Consumer Reports Facebook page (click the “Live” tab) at 11:00 a.m. ET. Meanwhile, Secretary LaHood accepted Consumerist’s request to answer a few reader-submitted questions.

While the new tarmac rules have decreased the number of extended waits for passengers on board cramped planes, critics point out an increase in the number of canceled flights and no real change in on-time arrivals. How do you respond to these criticisms?
The Department of Transportation’s new airline consumer rule has nearly eliminated the extended tarmac delays that had in some cases left travelers stranded aboard aircraft without access to food, water, or working lavatories for hours on end. While there were concerns that the rule would lead airlines to cancel more flights, our data show that this has not been the case.

Let’s look at the number of flights canceled after tarmac delays of more than two hours-which are the instances in which planes may have returned to the gate to comply with the tarmac delay rule. In May to December 2009, 251 flights were canceled after delays of two hours or more compared with 266 flights in 2010: a difference of 15 flights. That is not a significant increase, particularly given that there were approximately 9 million domestic passenger flights in the U.S. in 2009.

What is keeping the federal government from investing more in high-speed rail and rail freight? And what are the hurdles in getting more people out of their cars and onto high-speed trains?
President Obama has laid out a vision for giving 80% of American’s access to high-speed rail in the next 25 years. That means 80% of Americans will live within 30 miles of a rail line connecting to the national high-speed rail network. To put America on track towards that goal, the Obama Administration has proposed a six-year, $53 billion plan that will provide rail access to new communities; improve the reliability, speed and frequency of existing lines; and build new corridors where trains traveling at speeds of up to 250 mph will form the backbone of the national high-speed rail system. We’ve also executed agreements with a number of freight rail companies to upgrade some lines that will carry both freight and high-speed rail, and two-thirds of our $1.5 billion TIGER grant awards went to projects with freight-rail elements.

Does the recent Ford airbag recall — in which NHTSA had suggested that over 1 million vehicles be recalled, though Ford only ended up recalling around 150,000 — highlight the need for the agency to be empowered to demand recalls in certain situations?
I’ve said many times that I will take a back seat to no one when it comes to safety. We have made clear to auto makers that if they discover a safety defect, they need to report it to NHTSA and quickly conduct a safety recall. They know we take our responsibility for auto safety seriously and will pursue recalls if need be, and I think that’s part of the reason there was a record number of voluntary auto recalls in 2010.
Finally, NHTSA already has the power to order automakers to conduct recalls, but we have a process to go through before we can do that.

What are some specific tactics or projects is DOT working on to improve things for cyclists, pedestrians and communities?
We are working closely with HUD and EPA to coordinate investments in communities that give people more, and better, kinds of transportation options. I’m a cyclist myself, and we have supported a number of fantastic bike and pedestrian projects through the Department of Transportation’s livability initiative. I’m particularly looking forward to catching up with my bicyclist friends at this week’s National Bike Summit on Capitol Hill.

Some drivers argue that texting or checking e-mails on a smartphone is no more dangerous than fiddling with the radio or the climate control settings, or looking at a GPS map; and don’t get them started on things like in-vehicle TV screens. Given the amount of technology available in most new cars, where do we draw the line as to what
counts as “distracted”?

It only takes a second for an accident to take place. And anything that takes your eyes off the road and your attention away from driving safely is a distraction. The safest thing for drivers to do is put their cell phones and their electronic devices in their glove compartment to avoid temptation. Frankly, I don’t believe drivers should need to update their Facebook status or tweet while they are driving. We are conducting research into how cognitive distractions affect drivers and we will use those results to better inform our guidance to automakers and drivers.

Thanks to everyone who submitted questions. If you want to hear more from Secretary LaHood, watch the Consumers Union event live online on the CR Facebook page (click the “Live” tab) at 11:00 a.m. ET.