Ray LaHood announced this week that he won't continue on as the U.S. Secretary of Transportation for President Obama's second term, taking the most aggressive campaign against distracted driving ever put forth by the government with him as he departs.
I don't doubt that LaHood's heart was in the right place. He wanted to make cars safer and protect drivers and passengers from being injured or killed.
But his campaign was reactionary, misguided, promoted far too much government intrusion into how we drive and how automakers build cars, shifted too much attention away from poor driving itself, and it was ultimately ineffective.
By all accounts, LaHood was a much more high-profile secretary than his predecessors, and nearly all of his initiatives clashed with Jalopnik's "Drive Free or Die" driver-first mantra, making him a particular target of ours since his 2009 appointment to the post.
We lambasted him for honking at D.C. drivers he saw talking on cell phones; for not practicing what he preached when it came to fuel efficiency; for letting cops slide on the "no using cell phones while driving" thing; and for having little transportation or administrative experience in the first place.
The Department of Transportation under LaHood also put forth some requests to automakers that can only be described as ridiculous. From a story we featured last year about his request that car companies dumb down their in-car electronics and dashboard consoles:
The recommendations are almost comical in their concern and specificity, going so far as to suggest the maximum amount of time a driver should spend looking for and then pressing a button (two seconds), the maximum number of intermittent two-second glances required to complete an entire task (6, for 12 seconds total), and the maximum amount of digital text a driver can see while the car is moving (no more than 30 characters, "not counting puncuation marks").
It's strange that LaHood pushed for so much government intervention into how we drive and how cars are made considering he is a Republican — the only one in Obama's cabinet — the party that supposedly advocates less government spending and involvement in our lives.
Let's look at some of LaHood's misfires as Transportation Secretary:
- LaHood wanted more systems in place to eliminate distracted driving. Generally, as enthusiasts, we prefer our cars to be as light, uncomplicated, and driver-focused as possible. Forcing technology on cars that regulates driving (and cell phone usage) habits gets in the way of this.
- LaHood's approach didn't address the real problem. There's no doubt that texting or calling when you're driving is dangerous and ill-advised. I don't feel like putting new technology in cars to prevent this is the right approach. I worry that the inclusion of said technologies makes us overly reliant on them, and therefore worse at driving.
- Distracted driving is not the public health crisis that he made it out to be. In 2010, distracted driving accounted for about 9 percent of the approximately 33,000 highway fatalities in the U.S. That's too many, but still the bigger threat is drunk driving: 31 percent of highways deaths were related to alcohol. Now, the number of traffic deaths did indeed rise for the first time in years in 2012, but that was because more Americans were on the road thanks to better weather, an improved economy and other factors — not because of a rise in distracted driving.
To his credit, LaHood was also one of the lead champions of Obama's $53 billion plan for a national high-speed rail system, which is actually far more important (fewer cars on the road, more road for us.) We'll have to see if his successor shares the same enthusiasm.
Which brings me to my next question: who's going to take LaHood's place? That depends on what rumors you listen to. It could be Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, former Pennsylvania governor Edward G. Rendell, or Deborah A.P. Hersman, a member of the National Transportation Safety board, according to the Washington Post.
We'll see if any of them wil continue LaHood's legacy of needless meddling with car technology and driver behavior instead of the much larger transportation and infrastructure issues this country faces.
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