LaHood crusades against distracted driving 

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is a Cabinet Secretary on a crusade against distracted driving and in his own inimitable way he’s getting something done. It may save lives.

LaHood says operating a handheld cell phone or other device while driving was a factor in the deaths of more than 5,000 people last year alone. That’s more than all of the casualties suffered by American troops in Iraq since the beginning of the engagement there. The statistics also point to more than 400,000 injuries, again exceeding those in that war zone.

The statistics are sobering, but they touch the heart when they come alive in the tragic stories of those who have suffered great loss from the carelessness of distracted drivers. The LaHood summit featured two families from this region. Russell and Kim Hurd of Abingdon, MD, lost their daughter who was killed on her way to meet with her parents to plan her wedding.  She was involved in a chain-reaction wreck apparently caused by a truck driver who was texting. Laurie Kelly of Takoma Park, MD lost her son, Dan Woldtvedt, who died on his way to his first job after college. Investigators determined that Dan was using his cell phone at the time of the accident.

There were other tragic stories from North Carolina, Nevada, California, Illinois, New York, Florida and Michigan, where a couple lost their 11-year-old son when the driver of a Hummer, talking on a cell phone, ran a red light.

The stories are heartbreaking. They provoke a passionate human response for something to be done. Somebody’s got to do something, you think.  But what?  Who?

It is easy, too easy, to turn to the government to solve every problem. The great conundrum of the American political system is that we all want something from the government, and it doesn’t matter whether ‘we’ are a puritanical conservative demanding more in defense, homeland security or enforcement of ‘traditional family values’, or a San Francisco liberal advocating for protectionist trade policies or national health care.

What is an appropriate role for government is in the eye of the asker.

When it comes to traffic safety, the government has a legitimate role and LaHood has activated his Department to (a) promulgate new regulations where the government has jurisdiction; (b) encourage the states to enact tougher laws; (c) assist families in their efforts to cope with their grief and become activists themselves, and (d) increase public awareness and promote self-enforcement.  LaHood is at the right place at the right time.  

A number of states have enacted laws restricting or banning outright use of handheld devices. According to the Washington Examiner, the District of Columbia prohibits use of cell phones by drivers with learner’s permits, and school bus drivers. Handheld use is prohibited, but hands free is not. In Maryland, there are or will be restrictions on the use of handheld devices. Texting is a primary offense. In Virginia, texting is a primary offense and cell phones are prohibited for bus drivers and drivers under 18.  

LaHood recognizes what the government can do, but he also recognizes what it can’t. “We need good laws and effective enforcement, but more than anything else, people need to take personal responsibility and keep their eyes, hands and minds focused on the road every time they get behind the wheel,” he said.

The government role has precedent in a whole host of civic engagements, from the use of seat belts to smoking, and tax expenditures for everything from home mortgages to energy efficiency. Good comes of it, but it is a slippery slope, particularly when there’s an activist government in power. The problem is that the public and its watchdogs aren’t vigilant enough after the fact.

LaHood is accomplishing good, playing an activist but limited role. He’s made distracted driving a national concern and people are doing something about it. They are changing their behavior. Hopefully lives will be spared and personal injury avoided.  That’s what Cabinet Secretaries ought to be doing.

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