US experts and lawmakers called Wednesday for tough laws to curb distracted driving, blamed for thousands of deaths and half a million injuries in the United States last year.
"Nearly 6,000 people died last year in crashes involving a distracted driver and more than half a million were injured," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood told a meeting of experts and families of people killed by distracted drivers.
Distracted driving involves not only people using their mobile phones while at the wheel of a vehicle but also drivers playing video games, using iPods or Blackberries or even putting on nail polish or make-up, LaHood said.
It happens "every day of the week, in the rain, and with kids" in the vehicle, said LaHood, calling the phenomenon "an epidemic that has overtaken America and is getting worse."
And yet, only six states -- California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington plus Washington DC -- have laws banning the use of handheld phones while driving. Eighteen states plus the District of Columbia have banned drivers from sending text messages while at the wheel.
Experts on Wednesday called for the problem to be met head-on by a federal law "with teeth".
"No text message is so urgent that it is worth dying over," said Senator Amy Klobuchar, whose state of Minnesota last year banned texting, sending emails or surfing the Internet while driving. But it stopped short of an overall ban on handheld devices while driving.
"I used to say that when a drunk person gets behind the wheel of a car, it's like they have a loaded gun in their hand," Klobuchar said.
"In the case of someone who's texting while driving, the loaded gun may be a Blackberry," she said.
New York Senator Charles Schumer, one of the lawmakers who introduced the "Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting (ALERT) by Drivers Act" in July, said only tough laws with teeth would get American drivers to change their ways.
"We won't get drivers to kick this deadly habit simply by appealing to sentiment.
"We know this because even though, as the AAA found, 87 percent of people considered texting while driving to be a serious threat, one in five said they did it anyway," said Schumer.
Under the proposed law -- which is backed only by a handful of lawmakers, including Klobuchar -- states that do not ban texting at the wheel would lose some of their federal highway funding.
"Only states can outlaw texting while driving but the federal government can and should make it very hard for states that don't go along," Schumer told the gathering.
"We need a ban on texting while driving in every state across the country and we need it now," he said.
For a law to be effective against distracted driving, it would have to ban the use of all handheld wireless devices in a moving vehicle and carry a "significant monetary fine and points," Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI), told the meeting.
A study by VTTI has shown that text-messaging while driving increased the risk of a crash or near-crash 23-fold.
Experts also cited research which has shown that on any given day last year, more than three-quarters of a million vehicles were driven by someone in the United States using a hand-held mobile telephone.
But the most poignant and impactful moments at the summit came when a human face was put on the tragedy.
A woman held back tears as she told the meeting how her sister was killed a year ago by a distracted driver.
A man recalled how a woman failed to stop at a stop sign and drove into the car his 12-year-old son was traveling in as a passenger, killing the boy.
Another audience member "lost his mother when a driver who was painting her nails said she never saw the red light at the intersection."
The mother of yet another was killed "by a teenage driver... going 45 miles an hour (70 kilometers per hour) while talking on a cell phone," LaHood said.
"This is no longer controversial," said Schumer, repeating his call for tough national legislation to halt the problem of distracted driving.