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Secretary Ray LaHood --Remarks as Prepared-- Illinois Distracted Driving Summit

Good morning.  Thank you, Janet [Froetscher, President and CEO of the National Safety Council], for the introduction. Thank you to our extraordinary hosts and sponsors: The National Safety Council, Shriners Hospitals for Children-Chicago, the Allstate Foundation, and DuPont Sustainable Solutions.  And thank you all for the warm welcome home to Illinois.

It’s hard to believe almost two years have passed since many of us first came together and began the heavy lifting of assessing and addressing America’s distracted driving crisis.  And it’s hard to believe that we’ve come so far, so fast, in our campaign to end it. 

As Jennifer can attest, this became a personal crusade for me around the time I met her.   After our first distracted driving summit in 2009, we -- and a few others -- were preparing to participate on a cable news show.  Jennifer convinced me that the Department of Transportation should help create a distracted driving advocacy group like Mothers Against Drunk Driving.  So we did, launching FocusDriven.

During the 18 months since, Jennifer and many of you have traveled the country doing important and inspiring work, putting a human face on a terrible problem.  Jennifer, I’m proud of your extraordinary courage, tremendous advocacy, and remarkable leadership.  And I’m grateful for your friendship.

Now, what we’ve learned during the last few years is that distracted driving is an epidemic.  It’s an epidemic because everyone has a cell phone – and everyone thinks they can use it while driving.  They can’t.

Every single time someone takes their focus off the road – even if just for a moment – they put their lives and the lives of others in danger. Distracted driving is unsafe, irresponsible, and, in a split second, its consequences can be devastating.  There’s no call or email so important that it can’t wait.

The evidence is clear-cut:  Distracted driving-related crashes caused nearly 5,500 deaths and 450,000 injuries during 2009.  We believe that this represents only the tip of the iceberg because police reports in many places don’t routinely document whether distraction was a factor in vehicle crashes.

Either way, the victims aren’t statistics.  They’re moms and dads; daughters and sons; sisters and brothers.  The men and women in this audience who have planned funerals instead of birthdays or weddings will tell you exactly what’s at stake.

Still, the situation is not without hope.  We’ve seen that drivers can and do change their behaviors.   For instance, we’ve told Americans to click it or get a ticket.  And we’ve seen seatbelt use increase to 85 percent, up from 60 percent only 15 years ago. 

We’ve also reminded Americans that if they’re over the limit, then they’ll be under arrest.  And although driving under the influence is still a serious problem, we’ve seen drunk driving fatalities decline by almost 20 percent between 2006 and 2009. 

When we stop for a moment and ask “why,” we see the ingredients of a recipe that are also proving effective against distracted driving: Tough laws, consistent enforcement, ongoing public education, and personal responsibility.  And – for the last two years – we’ve been working on all these fronts.

Because of our collective efforts, 30 states have outlawed texting behind the wheel and eight states have banned handheld cell-phone use for all drivers.  North Dakota will soon make that 31. 

The Obama Administration has also banned federal employees – a workforce of 4 million people – and commercial bus and truck drivers from texting on the road. 

Enforcement pilot programs are dramatically reducing distracted driving in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York. 

Public education efforts are changing minds and behaviors in communities across America. 

And the American people are taking notice.  People tell me all the time that they turn off their phones when they get behind the wheel. 

We also see the positive impact that’s followed from a groundswell of grassroots support for our cause.  Corporations like DuPont have banned their employees from using cell phones on the job – not just because it improves safety, but also because it makes good business sense.  Allstate Insurance has made the fight against distracted driving a hallmark of its safety agenda.  Fraternity brothers at Kappa Alpha Psi are interested in taking the campaign to college campuses nationwide.  Students are organizing pledge drives in elementary and middle schools from Connecticut to Nebraska to Texas.  Local “Just Hang It Up” campaigns are spreading the word, far and wide, that the only safe way to get from one place to another is to hang up and drive. 

The entertainment industry is leading the charge as well.  Stars like Justin Bieber, Jordin Sparks, and Emma Roberts are headlining exciting and effective public awareness efforts. 

So, in all these ways, these last two years have made an enormous difference.  I can’t think of another safety issue in American history that’s gained so much traction in such a short period of time. 

Just to mention one anecdotal yard-stick: In only five months, more than 100,000 people have watched the Department of Transportation’s “Faces of Distracted Driving” Web series at www.distraction.gov

But we still haven’t solved the problem.  Not by a long shot.  And you don’t need to take my word for it. 

As the program proceeds, you’ll hear from several people who have suffered directly as a result of distracted driving.   Their loved ones – and thousands like them – came from all parts of the country.  They were the kinds of parents that every child adores.  They were the kinds of kids that every parent hopes for.  And their too-short life stories were punctuated with a question mark.  How many people need to die on America’s roadways?  How many people need to die on our watch – not because of evil or malice, but because of carelessness? 

During these last two years, many of you have joined a rising choir that is shouting: “Enough.”  Today, together, we will take measure of how far we have come in Illinois – and the distance we have yet to travel. 

So, share what you’re doing.  Share what you’ve learned.  Ask questions.  Listen to new ideas.  Come up with some new ideas of your own. 

But know this:  We are in this together.  We will solve this together.  We will not let up until distracted driving is a thing of the past.  Thank you very much.

Thursday, April 21, 2011