Campaign against cellphone use while driving goes global

By Ashley Halsey III
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 19, 2010; 11:13 PM

NEW YORK -- Ray LaHood first went global with his campaign against cellphone use behind the wheel last summer at a conference on highway safety in Moscow.

"I was the only one who talked about it," LaHood said as he headed to New York on Wednesday to take his crusade worldwide once more. "I think people were surprised that the [U.S.] secretary of transportation was talking about, of all things, distracted driving at an international highway safety conference."

The alarm he first sounded in Moscow was echoed at the United Nations on Wednesday.

"In some countries up to 90 percent of the people use cellphones while driving," U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon said. "Texting while driving kills."

Ban might have been reading from LaHood's Moscow script, or any of the scores of his speeches before and since the Moscow event.

But the secretary general, who banned U.N. employees worldwide from texting while driving, inserted global statistics in all of the places where LaHood uses national numbers about fatal accidents (nearly 6,000 deaths a year in the U.S.) and the cost ($43 billion each year in property damage, lost wages, medical bills and loss of life) of distracted driving.

Ban cited World Health Organization projections that by 2030 traffic accidents will outpace AIDS, cancer, violence and diabetes to become the fifth leading cause of death worldwide. Currently, he said, more than 1.2 million people die in road crashes each year, a death every 30 seconds.

The number of cellphones increased by 2 billion -- to 4.6 billion -- last year he said, and drivers who use them are four times more likely to be involved in a crash.

In addition to the presence of LaHood and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan E. Rice, Ban got a boost from Russia's U.N. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

"We highly appreciate the initiative of the United States in launching a great initiative on distracted driving," Churkin said.

Despite LaHood's self-described "rampage" to combat cellphone use, the U.S. lags behind much of the developed world in restricting them. The District and six states require use of hands-free devices. A Maryland hands-free law takes effect Oct. 1. At least 32 other nations require hands-free use, too, including most of Europe, Japan, China, Taiwan, Australia and Third World countries such as Ghana and Ethiopia.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company