A short time ago I was stopped in traffic when a car behind me rammed into the rear end of my car. The driver was texting his wife that he was late for work.
Thankfully, nobody was injured. But my lovingly maintained car was damaged, and the other driver was even later for work.
Not long after that, I was walking up to an intersection when a woman using her BlackBerry almost stepped in front of a car driven by a man who speeded up to make the light while holding and talking on his cell phone, although such a practice is banned for all drivers in the District of Columbia.
Thus, I was pleased to hear that the White House, learning that 6,000 people were killed last year because of distracted drivers, has decided to put its weight behind finding solutions to the problem.
Distracted driving is the “new norm” among young drivers, according to the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. It’s the 21st century’s equivalent of driving under the influence. And just like drunk driving and failure to wear seat belts, it’s taken a long time to awaken the country to the dangers of not paying attention behind the wheel.
The deaths of 25 people and injuries to 135 others in a 2008 California train crash attributed to cell phone use by transit crews woke up a lot of officials. One study found that even experienced drivers of heavy trucks were 23 times more likely to have an accident while text messaging.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood just held a two-day summit on the dangers of texting while driving as well as use of cell phones, iPods, BlackBerries, video games and other handheld devices. Other distractions are eating, dialing a radio, dealing with children, putting on makeup, reaching for an item and even reading. Among those participating in the summit were family members of people who died because of distracted drivers. Texting young people are the biggest offenders.
But LaHood, who says texting while driving is an epidemic menace to society, admits the challenge is changing personal behavior. Despite more state laws, the promise of federal action, tougher enforcement and the obvious fact that distracted driving is dangerous to the driver, passengers and others on the road, someone dies on our roads every 13 minutes.
Getting Americans to change everyday behavior is a daunting challenge. Even some of the more than 250 safety experts at the transportation summit admit they sometimes use cell phones while driving. Few punish their teens for phone use while driving.
That is why I take issue with people who want the president to focus only on “big” issues such as the overhaul of health insurance, Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the resurgent Taliban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan.
Presidents can have a positive influence on daily behavior, which, in the long run may be just as important as the cosmic policy debates.
The brouhaha over President Barack Obama’s trip to Copenhagen to try to persuade the International Olympic Committee of the worthy goal of letting Chicago, his home town, host the 2016 games and subsequent jousting with Brazil amazed me. It’s not as though Air Force One is a work-free environment. I was also appalled at the national ruckus over his message to children to stay in school.
Similarly, I was not upset when former President Clinton advocated school uniforms as a way to improve the atmosphere, discipline and behavior in public schools.
I thought it was fine when former President Carter wore a sweater in the Oval Office after turning down the thermostat.
I loved former President Reagan’s story of optimism about the kid put in a room full of manure who happily decided there must be a pony in there somewhere.
I am absolutely positive that Obama does not text message while driving, even if he drove these days, which he clearly does not. Who knows how many lives the new White House initiative might save?
(Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail amcfeatters(at)nationalpress.com.)