Legislation introduced in the U.S. Senate today would effectively impose a national prohibition on texting while driving. Referred to as the ALERT Act, the legislation, sponsored by four Senate Democrats (Charles Schumer of New York, Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Kay Hagan of North Carolina), would require the Department of Transportation to devise a penalty scheme for texting-and-driving offenses and would then require states to enact laws implementing the scheme.
The legislation follows the familiar example of previous federal laws raising the minimum drinking age, requiring seat-belt use, and imposing a 55 mile-per-hour speed limit. In order to regulate automotive-safety issues like these that are clearly within the authority of the individual states, Congress resorts to an indirect route, telling the states that unless they enact the laws that Congress wants, federal funding for highway projects will be withheld. The states may not like being told what to do in this manner, but courts have made clear that such actions are constitutional, allowing the federal government to impose national regulations relating to road safety.