Distracted driving, part deux

The other day I was driving down a city street in D.C. when I heard a stern male voice from the sidewalk yell out, “Put down that phone!” It was a policeman. You know who he was yelling at? Me. I did the manly thing, of course. I blamed my wife. I said she made me do it. It wasn’t a smart move. The male police officer was accompanied by a female officer, who failed to see the humor in my retort. Neither did my wife.

I mention the incident because there was a report out this week from an insurance-funded organization called the Highway Loss Data Institute, which concluded that the campaign against texting while driving is having no apparent impact on accidents if you compare accident rates in states with and without texting laws. The spin off of the report was that all of the attention being given to texting while driving is misdirected. The report came out, conveniently enough, right after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s distracted driving summit.

Secretary LaHood’s campaign is partnered with the activism of 30 states that have passed texting and driving laws, road safety groups, and most importantly, the parents and family members of those who have been killed or injured by drivers who were texting. Two families from this area participated in the LaHood summit and their stories, recounted in an earlier blog, were compelling.

Even though I have some reservations about the government attempting to dictate human behavior, I’m a proponent of the public campaign against distracted driving. I’ve expressed myself verbally or with familiar hand gestures to other drivers who have one hand on the wheel and the other on a phone. I’ve preached to my children about it. I’ve written about it here on the Washington Examiner's Local Opinion Zone. I’ve raised the issue on phone calls with people I suspect are on a cell phone while driving.

But as the incident with the on the beat cops revealed. I’m still bad. I’m addicted to the use of my blackberry device and I find it takes considerable discipline to keep it in the holster in the car, or in meetings, at dinner, or in the bathroom, for that matter. It’s a good technology gone bad. And changing human behavior that is so engrained is going to take time. Texting takes place a trillion, not a million or a billion, but a trillion and a half times a year. The craze is growing by 60 percent a year.

That is one of the reasons the insurance industry study is meaningless, particularly since it looked at only four states that I could tell. Any conclusions about the impact of new laws is highly premature, and a little suspect. Changing behavior, as was done with seatbelts and child safety seats and smoking, takes time, a lot of time. You don’t turn a country of 300 million independent cusses on a dime. You encourage a change in fundamental behavior over years with a constant drumbeat, increased social pressure from all sides. The realities of transformational change in behavior are lessons not learned in politics in America. Ask the President.

There’s another element to consider as well. While states are enacting new laws and regulations on texting, the campaign is really about distracted driving, a much broader road safety rage. Distracted driving could easily turn into the epidemic that LaHood predicts because it’s also car navigation systems, cameras, other new electronics, added to the old classics, like the application of make-up at the street light.

The campaign has had one other positive affect. It has spawned civic activism, not only among the parents and families of those hurt, but by others who understand their concerns and agree with the simple logic that this example of bad behavior has to be curbed. Responsible civic activism should be encouraged, not discouraged.

Few would dispute the insurance industry’s argument that there are other more formidable causes of traffic deaths and injuries that need public attention or better enforcement mechanisms. But their lame attempt to discredit the distracted driving campaign because of some fear that it will inhibit action in other areas is bogus and harmful.

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