Dec 19, 2011

If 5 to 10% of the US population suffered from an illness that had a high likelihood of being fatal AND was highly contagious, the press would label it a "pandemic." Not only that, the government may even close our nation's borders, appoint Presidential Blue Ribbon Panels, and approve urgent appropriations to the Center for Disease Control that would make the financial bailout of 2008 look like a local toy drive. And isn't that what you would expect of your government? Because that's what we do in this country when we face life threatening crises, right? We address the problem. It is the American way.

So, if crises are always addressed, how did a study come out just this month, December 2011, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that announced what clearly amounts to a pandemic, and yet CNN barely covered it. Republicans didn't blame the President for inaction, and no Blue Ribbon Panels were appointed. Why is this pandemic being ignored?

What is this pandemic? The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's latest study confirms what every driver on the roads already knows. At a minimum, 5% of drivers regularly engage their handheld cell phones while driving, and at least 1% are visibly texting while driving. Similar studies show that in the last 2 years there were no less than 77,000 traffic fatalities with a significant number of those due to distracted driving. While there are many reasons for distracted driving accidents, most studies have pointed to the use of handheld devices as the supreme culprit.

If gambling, alcohol, and even Charlie Sheen enjoying the company of "professional women" can be considered a disease, why isn't texting while driving? Why isn't our government more concerned about the sheer body count? This year, we lost more lives in traffic fatalities in three months than we did in ten years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Why is this not a public health problem that requires government intervention? How is this not more important than many things Congress tries to regulate?

Peoples' good intentions aren't making the problem go away. In fact, like any other untreated pandemic, the problem is getting much worse every year. The cell phone and car manufacturers have had plenty of time to address this problem on their own, and yet haven't done a thing to tackle this crisis. Frankly, why should they? Who wants to be the first to market a product that won't work if you decide to do something dangerous or stupid with it? Clearly, there needs to be a solution and it needs to happen now. Too many lives have been wasted already.

Different than drinking and driving or chronic diseases like AIDS, there are a couple of relatively simple solutions to this crisis. Vehicle manufacturers, in cooperation with the cell phone industry, need to create a technological solution.

The car and cell phone industry currently have the technological capabilities to do it. However, until governments require car and cell phone manufacturers to apply this technology, these high profit industries won't police themselves.

Most people feel that they can safely use their handheld device while driving, but, of course, other drivers can't do it safely. But the truth is that no one drives well while distracted. Most people are well aware that drinking and driving is extremely dangerous. But a study from the University of Utah determined the effects of driving under the influence of alcohol to be comparable to texting and driving. The study found little, if any, difference in driver reaction between these two dangerous driving-related collateral activities.

My vehicle's GPS won't allow me to input an address when my vehicle is moving. Car manufacturers have technology to immobilize a vehicle from far off locations if the vehicle is stolen. The technology to eradicate cell phone/texting/handheld distracted driving can be accomplished if the cell and car industries were required to address this dangerous problem together.

Vehicle manufacturers, with the assistance of the cell phone industry, could do one of two simple fixes: (1) create a "dead zone" in the vehicle precluding cell phone usage from the driver's seat; or (2) the vehicle manufacturers could wire a vehicle in such a way that a signal would be sent to the electrical system of the vehicle to shut off the engine if the driver turns on his/her cell phone.

In just the last two years, it is likely that 77,000 more people would be alive today if manufacturers in both industries addressed this problem on their own. Obviously, it is time for our government to treat this urgent public health matter with regulations to go where these "fat cat" industries won't go on their own.

At Anderson Hemmat, it is our hope that you will make the commitment today to put down the cell phone while driving. And should you be injured by someone who has not made a similar commitment, it is our mission to help you get the justice you deserve.


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