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Duncan: Let’s Talk About Distracted Driving

At approximately 3:30 p.m. on a Friday a few months ago, I was driving home from the Knoxville Airport, having just flown in from Washington.

I was on an interstate connector with most of the fairly heavy traffic going 60 or 70 mph. I looked down to change two or three channels on my radio. When I looked back up, the pickup truck in front of me had slowed dramatically.

I had to swerve to keep from crashing into the rear of the truck, just hoping that no other vehicle was coming up at that moment in the other lane.

Slamming on my brakes, I slid from the left lane to the right on into the emergency lane, and then spun back across all three lanes, slamming into the concrete barrier with the side of my car.

My slide continued back across all three lanes for a 360-degree spin, ending up facing the way I had been going but stopped in the emergency lane.

I did all this with cars and trucks whizzing by on my right and left but miraculously without hitting another vehicle or being hit by one.

Two men immediately stopped in front and in back of my car and came up to ask if I was hurt.

When I told each one separately that I was OK, the first said, “Man, are you lucky!” The second, moments later, said almost the same words: “Boy, are you lucky!”

I tell that story to explain why I feel so strongly that Ray LaHood, our great secretary of Transportation, is doing important work leading a campaign against distracted driving.

I was a distracted driver, and it is a miracle I was not seriously injured or did not seriously injure someone else.

Many, many times I have used my cell phone or fiddled with tapes, CDs or the radio while driving. I do not send text messages but am firmly convinced that this cannot be done safely while operating a motor vehicle.

Nearly 6,000 people were killed in 2008 on our highways because of distracted driving. This is the number of deaths we know about, but there are probably thousands more who are killed by this menace without investigators realizing it is the cause.

I chaired the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Aviation for six years. Unfortunately, more people are killed on our nation’s roads every year than in all U.S. aviation accidents combined since the Wright Brothers’ flight in 1903.

This is an amazing statistic, but one that really highlights how deadly it can be to drive a motor vehicle.

One of the very few things on which there is 100 percent unity in this country is that everyone thinks of themselves as good drivers. In reality, almost no one drives as safely or carefully as necessary.

“Click It or Ticket” enforcement and coverage of traffic accidents by the media have resulted in 84 percent usage of seat belts.

The Department of Transportation has achieved early success with grant programs in two Northeastern cities that were given funds to ticket drivers who were using their cell phones.

Secretary LaHood has given speeches and held news conferences around the country to discuss this problem, and he deserves credit for the executive order the president handed down to prohibit federal employees from texting while driving government vehicles.

I applaud Secretary LaHood for his great effort in fighting distracted driving. However, he cannot do it alone.

I hope all of my colleagues in Congress will at least discuss the problem in a speech, newsletter, radio or TV interview, or especially when talking to high school and college students.

I am convinced that a great many lives could be saved and many thousands of serious injuries could be avoided if we would all start calling attention to the problem of distracted driving.

And I am very thankful to still be here to tell about the lesson I learned when I allowed myself to be distracted while driving on an interstate in Tennessee.

Rep. John Duncan (R-Tenn.) is ranking member of the Transportation and Infrastructure Subcommittee on Highways and Transit.

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