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Driving While Distracted

Ray LaHood, government guy, targets our ­cell phones.

Feb 22, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 22 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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If you want to know why it may soon be illegal for you to use your cell phone when you drive your car, you have to remember that Ray LaHood, the secretary of transportation, is a government guy. It’s all he knows.

Driving While Distracted

As a young man LaHood taught for six years in a private school, but since then it’s been government all the way—a few years as a planner for the state planning commission, a term in the Illinois legislature, nearly 20 years as a congressional aide, and 14 years in the big time, as a Republican congressman, piping federal grants into a derelict district in central Illinois. Though he’s driven many automobiles and ridden in countless airplanes, he has no particular expertise in the nation’s transportation systems, and some kibitzers wondered aloud why President Obama appointed him secretary. But the kibitzers miss the point: As a government guy LaHood doesn’t need any expertise beyond being a government guy.

This is where you and your cell phone come in. Over the last several months LaHood has mobilized his vast and lavishly funded ($70 billion) department behind a high-minded goal: “to put an end to distracted driving.” Those are his words—not curtail, not discourage, not even reduce by 50 percent. No: Put an end to. In its ambition and method, LaHood’s initiative is a kind of textbook example of how government guys create work for themselves, manage to keep themselves busy, and put the rest of us on our guard. 

The government guy’s first step, always, is to raid the language of epidemiology and declare a problem—any problem, from anorexia to obesity—an “epidemic.” And so: “Distracted driving is a serious, life-threatening epidemic,” LaHood said at one of his big events last month. (By definition, of course, epidemics are serious and life-threatening, but since distracted driving isn’t really an epidemic, the adjectives are needed to juice it up.)

Even imaginary epidemics need victims. The next step is for the government guy to identify dead people whose relatives are willing, for unknown reasons, to let him publicly exploit their unutterable grief for his own purposes. To advance his distracted driving campaign LaHood keeps several of these abject relatives handy, so his publicists can position them just behind him and slightly to the right, where the cameras catch them gazing at him with liquid, upcast eyes. The relatives are particularly useful if some cynic or pantywaist naysayer questions the urgency or logic of a government initiative. When his use of statistics was called into question a few weeks ago, LaHood fired back on his website. “Ask Shelli Ralls,” he said, “who lost her son Chance Wayne Wilcox on March 22, 2008” in a “crash caused by a cell phone driver.” Here he inserted a tasteful picture of Wilcox’s crash site. And then he invoked the deity. “Ask any one of the hundreds of people who have poured out their stories of loss on Oprah.” Nothing shuts up a cynic like a grieving mother. 

Epidemic isn’t the only essential term for a government guy. Certain phrases act as a kind of dog whistle for bureaucrats, activists, and sympathetic reporters, to let them know an important initiative is afoot. In seeking to end distracted driving in the United States, LaHood has used them all. He has issued a “call to action,” vowed to “raise awareness,” invoked a “national network” of “stakeholders” pursuing “best practices,” insisted that “the American people” “demand action” and “commonsense solutions.” 

The most valuable term for LaHood is “distracted driving.” It is an expansive phrase that a deft government guy can play like an accordion, stretching or squeezing it as his argument demands. The immediate upshot of LaHood’s initiative, he said last month, is that he wants laws that will make it illegal for drivers to use handheld cell phones behind the wheel. State laws, local laws, federal laws, whichever, it seems not to matter to him—just so long as this little slice of unregulated human behavior is prohibited and punished. Already seven states and the District of Columbia have outlawed the use of handheld cell phones by drivers, and dozens more are entertaining similar legislation. LaHood urges Congress to push all states to pass cell phone laws or, if the states fail him, to pass a law of its own.

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