Remarks at the Harvard School of Public Health

Secretary Anthony Foxx

Remarks at the Harvard School of Public Health
April 28, 2014 • Boston, MA

Remarks as prepared for delivery

Thanks Dean Frenk for having me – and thanks to Lance Gould, and the Huffington Post for making today possible.

Most of all, thanks to everyone here at Harvard for showing up – and everyone watching online for logging on.

Today, I’m here to talk about the tragedy of distracted driving. But, frankly, there are people more qualified to talk about it than me, and I’d like you to hear from one of them now.

 [a video was shown about distracted driving victim Joe Teater]

The saddest part about this video? It’s not the only one we’ve filmed. We’ve filmed dozens of them and we’re adding a new one this week – a mother and daughter I met earlier this month: They’re all victims of distracted driving. And we could have filmed thousands more.

All of the videos are hard to watch – especially as a parent.  But they serve an important purpose – they remind viewers that this can happen to anyone.

At the Department of Transportation, we know this all too well. It’s part of the reason we call the problem an “epidemic” and why it’s fitting that the School of Public Health is hosting this discussion.

After all, this school was founded in 1913, when the world was suffering a cholera epidemic that would claim 800,000 lives. A few years later, Spanish Flu would kill more people than World War I.

It’s no wonder the medical community stood up then and said, “Let’s organize. Let’s bring more science to the fight. Let’s figure out how to prevent and cure sickness on a broad scale.”

In much the same way, about 100 years later, when we were facing an epidemic of a different sort, someone at DOT stood up and expressed the same sentiment. He wasn’t a scientist. He was my predecessor.

Ray LaHood turned “distracted driving” into a household word and sounded the alarm on this epidemic that we are continuing to fight today.

In 2009, when we he – and President Obama – took office, it was hard to know just how bad the crisis was. A Harvard study from 2003 estimated that distracted driving caused 330,000 accidents a year. But the numbers were hard to pin down. In most places, police officers didn’t ask if drivers had been using their cellphones before a crash.

It wasn’t really their fault, though; that wasn’t the law. Five years ago, you could have driven all the way from the Canadian border to Mexico – texting the entire way – and not have broken a single law.  Only 18 states had anti-texting regulations on the books back then.

I wouldn’t say distracted driving was like a disease without a cure then. But it WAS like a disease without a name. Which is worse, because you have to know what you’re fighting to beat it.

So that’s what we did at DOT, starting under Secretary LaHood: We gave what we were fighting a name… and a face… and a voice… and harnessed the full power of the federal government to beat it.

We started ad campaigns. We worked with state legislators. We worked with law enforcement. And things began to change.

Today – just five years later – 43 states have bans on texting behind the wheel. South Dakota just passed theirs last month. And 12 states ban all hand-held phone use.

Awareness is up. Distracted driving deaths are down, albeit slightly.

And yet, we know we’re running a marathon, not a sprint.  For all the progress we’ve made, we still need to make more.

Because over 3,300 people died in distracted driving crashes in 2012, which is the latest year we have data for.

Distracted driving is still a new field, a new fight. And we’re still learning how to combat it. We don’t have all the answers, but we’re getting there.

So I want to give you a few updates on what we’ve learned recently – and what we’ve done.

We’ve always known, for example, that educating the public is an important way to keep drivers safe, especially when that education is coupled with enforcement. But now, we’ve uncovered the data to back it up.

Back in 2010, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration – NHTSA – created a pilot program called “Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other.” It would study the effects of increased law enforcement efforts and public service announcements.

One city we looked at was Syracuse, New York. And the data showed there that – because of high-visibility enforcement – both handheld cell phone use and texting behind the wheel declined by one-third.

Hartford was another city, and there was more room for improvement there than in Syracuse because Hartford drivers were talking on their cell phones twice as much. We’re happy to report that handheld use dropped by 57 percent and texting behind the wheel dropped by nearly three-quarters.

As of this month, we have even more data. Because from November 2012 to June 2013 we ran pilot programs in California and Delaware. We invested almost $2.5 million dollars in regions that, altogether, contained almost 5 million people. And here’s what we learned.

By the end of the program, nearly 60 percent of California drivers were aware of the campaign –“Phone in One Hand, Ticket in the Other.”  And at both sites, hand-held cell phone use dropped by a third. The bottom line? The data showed that if we cracked down and spoke up at the same time, it worked.

But I should add here: Data is only as good if you use it, which is what we did at DOT.

We just wrapped our first nationwide distracted driving campaign that was on par with past campaigns against drunk driving.

It was called, U Text. U Drive. U Pay, and it drew on what we learned in our pilot programs: public service announcements and high-visibility enforcement are a winning duo.

So, that was lesson one lesson.

Here’s another.

Young drivers are the biggest risks – and the most at risk. This may not sound surprising. But the scale of it is. A quarter of all teens respond to at least one text message EVERY SINGLE TIME they drive.

And yet, the ironic thing is:  Young drivers – especially teens – are fast becoming our biggest allies in this fight. A few weeks ago, I went to an awards ceremony in Washington. High school-ers from around the country had flown it. There were hundreds of them. And they were there because they’d begun their own distracted driving campaigns in their own towns.

Today, friends are telling friends to put down their phones; sisters are telling brothers. And, yes, kids are telling their parents, too.

But communication on this issue is also happening somewhere else: between our offices at DOT, and the offices of American automakers.

Three years ago, we announced that we were creating guidelines for how in-vehicle technology should be designed: how long, for example, it should take a driver to change the station on the radio.

(Our guidelines said your eyes shouldn’t be off the road for more than two seconds at a time – or more than 12 seconds for any series of tasks). 

Recently, we’ve moved on to a second set of guidelines. In fact, we just held two public meetings to talk about what we call, “nomadic devices:” Smartphones are the big example.

And once those guidelines are complete, we’ll focus on “cognitive distraction,” to figure out ways to make things like in-vehicle voice activation technology – OnStar is an example – are an enhancement, not a distraction.

So that is where I will end my remarks, except to say that “I’m hopeful.” Because we’ve been here before. In the 1970s, almost 90 percent of American’s didn’t buckle up. Today, nearly 90 percent do. Once, drunk driving wasn’t taken seriously; today its dangers are known and it isn’t tolerated.

Some folks say, “People are going to drive how they want to drive, and do what they want to do. You can’t change human behavior.”

But again and again, we proven that we can. As sure as we’ve eradicated disease, we’ve fought against – and won against – bad behavior, sending it off to a small corner of the population, where it still can harm, but doesn’t as often.  We’ll do the same with distracted driving.

Thank you all for the chance to speak today. I don’t like beginning my talk with videos like the one I showed you. And hopefully, one day, I won’t have to.

Thanks again. And I look forward to our discussion.

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Updated: Wednesday, December 10, 2014
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