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By all accounts, Joe Teater was a youngster with tremendous promise: smart, popular, interested in making movies and videos. But the 12-year-old Michigan boy was killed in 2004 when a driver ran a red light and smashed into the car in which Joe and his mother were riding. The driver who hit Joe's car didn't see the red light because she was talking on her cellphone.
The sad fact is that in the coming weeks in particular, too many drivers will become distracted as they study a GPS, dial a cellphone or type a text message.
Over the past few years, distracted driving has gone from a dangerous practice to a deadly epidemic. The problem is getting worse, especially among younger drivers. As more people hit the roads over the holidays, the potential for disaster grows.
Our nation must address this problem. Last month I hosted a summit in Washington on distracted driving. We have all seen people driving dangerously when distracted by cellphones, eating or some other type of multitasking, and many of us have been guilty of the same irresponsible behavior. Distracted driving is a deeply ingrained problem, which is why I wanted to take a more systematic look at the issue and its many dimensions.
We brought together safety and law enforcement experts as well as young adults whose distracted driving had tragic consequences. The most heartbreaking moments came in the testimony of families who'd lost loved ones because someone else had chosen to send a text, dial a phone or become occupied with another activity while driving.
Joe Teater's parents, Dave and Judy, were among those who told their stories. These wonderful people, and many others like them, have become activists against distracted driving, turning their grief into an effort to make our roads safer.
We - and they - have a lot of work to do. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research shows that nearly 6,000 people died last year, and that more than 500,000 were injured, in crashes involving distracted drivers.
This problem is not being caused by just a few negligent drivers. The AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, a nonprofit educational and research organization, reported in July that two-thirds of drivers admitted talking on their cellphones while driving within the past 30 days, and 21 percent had sent or read a text or an e-mail.
John Lee, director of the Center for Human Performance and Risk Analysis at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, says texting is an especially serious problem, presenting a "perfect storm" of driver distraction: Drivers take their eyes off the road, their hands off the wheel and their mind off the critical task of controlling a car.
President Obama moved quickly to ban texting by federal employees when driving a private car on official business, when using electronic equipment supplied by the government while driving, and while driving private vehicles when on official government business. The president's actions signal that distracted driving is dangerous and unacceptable. In addition, I have directed the Transportation Department to develop model laws with tough enforcement measures so that states and local governments can address this problem. And there's clearly a role for education and public awareness.
Simply put: Lives are at stake every day. It's critical we begin combating distracted driving now.
Joe Teater's parents have said that the pain of losing their son never goes away. And too many families will feel a void this holiday season because a loved one has been killed in an accident caused by a distracted driver. Please tell your friends and family that you'll be thankful if they keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel and arrive safely at your door.
Ray LaHood is the U.S. secretary of transportation.