Can comedians end distracted driving epidemic?

(Pat Wellenbach/AP )

Can drivers be shamed into putting down their mobile communication devices? An associate dean at Harvard’s School of Public Health says it’s worth a try. And Jay A. Winsten says stand-up comedians could boost the effort.

“A cellphone is like a magnet, and it draws our attention. Using the term addiction loosely, it really has addictive qualities,” Winsten said at a public forum on campus Monday. “It’s really hard not to reach for that” phone when it rings or signals that a text message has arrived.

“It’s such a part of our psyche and our way of being that we’re going to have to re-position what it means when people see you talking on the phone,” he said. You’re “really showing that you’re out of control, that you can’t stop, that you can’t put it down. We ought to recruit some top stand-up comedians [who are] going ridicule the behavior of not being able to put your phone down.”

Winsten was joined at the forum by Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who said it’s time to “shock Americans into reality about the dangers of texting while driving.”

Young drivers are the biggest risk and the most at risk,” Foxx said. “About a quarter of all teens respond to at least one text message every single time they drive.  Young people tend to pride themselves on being more tech savvy than the rest of us, and they probably are, but that doesn’t mean they know enough to be able to fight against the data. And the data tells us that when you text and drive, that[bad] things happen.”

More than 3,300 people die and 420,000 are injured annually in crashes attributed to distracted drivers. Among all drivers involved in fatal crashes, teens were the most likely to have been distracted, National Highway Traffic Administration data show.

“We live in a hyper-connected world, and we expect to be in constant contact with everybody at all times, and that’s particularly true of young people,” Foxx said. “But it’s also true of the rest of us. In our culture, people thing that everyone else shouldn’t do it, but they can. If everyone stops doing it we’re going to be a lot safer.”

The National Occupant Protection Use Survey found that about 660,000 drivers are talking on cellphones or manipulating electronic devices while driving during daylight in the United States.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.

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