Remarks by Ambassador Susan E. Rice, U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin, on the Hazards of Distracted Driving, at a United Nations Stakeout

Susan E. Rice
U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations 
U.S. Mission to the United Nations 
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin
New York, NY
May 19, 2010


Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon: Good morning, ladies and gentlemen of the media. It's a great pleasure.

I am very pleased to be joined by Ambassador Rice, Ambassador Churkin, Secretary LaHood, and Ms. Jennifer Smith. And welcome to the United Nations.

Every year, more than 1.2 million people die on the roads around the world, and as many as 50 million people are injured. Over 90 percent of these deaths occur in low-income and middle-income countries.

Road accidents are now the top global killer of young people aged 15 to [29]. A number of factors increase the risk: high speed; drunk driving; no seat belt, child restraint or motorcycle helmet.

We are seeing a major emerging challenge of driver distraction, mainly by using mobile phones. Studies indicate that using a mobile phone increases the risk of a crash by about four times. And yet in some countries, up to 90 percent of people use mobile phones while driving.

We must instill a culture of road safety, a culture in which driving while distracted -- on the phone or text messaging -- is unacceptable, unacceptable in the eyes of the law and the public.

I want every driver in the world to get the message: texting while driving kills. No SMS is worth an SOS.

The UN is leading by example. That is why I am issuing an administrative instruction aimed at promoting road safety, saving lives, and prohibiting all drivers of UN vehicles from texting while driving.

The United Nations General Assembly, for its part, has declared a Decade of Action for Road Safety. I thank the leaders here for being a driving force for road safety. Together, we have a message to all drivers of the world: don't let using a mobile for a few seconds make you and others immobile for life.

Thank you very much. And I would like now call on Ambassador Rice.

Thank you.

Ambassador Rice: Good morning everyone. Thank you, Mr. Secretary-General. Thank you especially for your leadership here at the United Nations, including on the very important issue of distracted driving. Secretary LaHood, thank you so much for joining us in New York and for the outstanding work you are doing to raise awareness on this deadly problem across the country and around the world.

Jennifer Smith, we thank you so much for your presence here and for your leadership on the issue. And I also want to thank my very good friend and colleague Ambassador Churkin for being here today. He and the Russian Federation have been leaders on this issue, including by sponsoring the March 2 General Assembly Resolution entitled, “Improving Road Safety”; which the United States was proud to be able to co-sponsor. This resolution, among other things, specifically discouraged texting while driving. It passed by consensus, which is a tribute to Russia’s important leadership.

We’re here today to shine a spotlight on a problem that affects us all. Texting while driving isn’t a harmless habit. It’s a killer. The suffering it causes is direct and immediate—lives lost for no reason, futures shattered in an instant. But its toll is truly global. It’s a problem, as the Secretary-General just said, that needs global attention and action—and that’s why we all stand here today.

In the United States, nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in distracted driving crashes, and more than a half a million more were injured, many of them seriously. And these numbers don’t even tell the whole story because we often can’t identify what factors precisely may have led to a crash. What we do know is this: drivers who use hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into crashes causing serious injuries, than those who are focused on the road. Studies by researchers at the University of Utah show that using a cell phone while driving delays a driver’s reactions as much as having alcohol in your blood up to the legal limit of .08 percent.

I applaud the Secretary-General for recognizing that distracted driving is a very serious matter—and for prohibiting the United Nations’ 40,000 employees from texting while operating vehicles on UN business. President Obama issued a similar order, an Executive Order, last year. And we hope other world leaders will follow suit.

Already, there are some encouraging signs. Thirty-two countries have passed laws to restrict the use of handheld devices by drivers. Early next year, the World Health Organization will team up with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to provide an information resource kit to help other countries develop and implement their own distracted-driving programs.

For the sake of my loved ones and all of yours, let’s make distracted driving a problem of the past.

Thank you all for joining us today.

And it's now my pleasure to introduce --is it Ambassador Churkin next-- Ambassador Vitaly Churkin.

Thank you.

Ambassador Churkin: Thank you very much, Ambassador Rice, Secretary-General, Secretary LaHood.

Recognition by the international community of the gravity of the problem of road safety gave strong impetus for active actions by governments. As President Dmitry Medvedev has stressed, road safety requires a common strategy and joint efforts.

Together with other countries and in close collaboration with the United Nations, Russia is actively involved in international cooperation in this field.

An important step forward in promoting global interaction was made by the first Global Ministerial Conference on Road Safety held in Moscow last November and attended by high-level delegations from more than 150 states.

The Moscow Declaration adopted at the conference paved the way for reenergizing collective actions for the entire international community.

This March, as a follow-up to the conference, the U.N. General Assembly adopted Resolution 16255, Improving Global Road Safety, which was sponsored by Russia -- presented by Russia. It enjoyed broad support in the United Nations and was co-sponsored by more than 100 member states.

The resolution declared the period 2011-2020 as the Decade of Action for Road Safety, with a goal to stabilize and then reduce the forecast level of road traffic fatalities around the world.

We highly appreciate the initiative of the United States government to launch a global effort to end distracted driving, which is becoming, as it was rightly pointed out, a dangerous and growing epidemic.

The issue of distractions while driving was highlighted already during the Moscow Ministerial Conference and, thanks to the efforts of the U.S. delegation, this issue made its way into the U.N. General Assembly resolution adopted in March as well.

The call for action we are making today is appropriate and timely. Member states, together with WHO and other U.N. organizations, are now in the process of preparing for the launch of the Decade of Action for Road Safety 2011-2020.

The plan of action for the Decade will be a guiding document to support the implementation of the Decade's objectives.

Ambitious targets are being set in the document for the reduction of road fatalities by 2020, including strengthening the global architecture for road safety, increasing the level of global funding to road safety, increasing human capacity within countries relating to road safety, providing technical support, improving the quality of data collection, and monitoring progress.

We are convinced that now it is high time to fully integrate the issue of distraction in traffic into the plan of action as well. This work is now under way under the auspices of the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, whose working party on road safety has started considering this matter.

Russia is ready to engage with the United States and other interested parties in defining the ways to incorporate it into the global road safety cooperation agenda. The plan of action for the Decade is the most appropriate framework for this.

Thank you very much.

Secretary LaHood: Good morning. My name is Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation. I am thrilled to be here, and I am so appreciative for the leadership of Ambassador Rice and her help to arrange this very important meeting today.

And, Mr. Secretary-General, thank you so much for your leadership. Thank you for being here.

Mr. Ambassador, thank you also. I was in Moscow about a year ago, and your president called for a highway safety meeting, and the address I gave there was about distracted driving. So we appreciate the leadership from your country.

I also want to acknowledge Cass Sunstein and Samantha Power, who are also here, who have shown a great deal of leadership on this issue.

Sixty-five years ago next month, delegates from 50 countries pledged that they would join together to promote the safety and security of all people. In doing so, they established this remarkable institution.

And in that same spirit, the secretary-general, Ambassador Rice and I are joining forces with the Russian ambassador at the United Nations today in issuing a global call to end distracted driving.

I'd like to briefly address two questions this morning: Why this, and why now?

The short answer is during the last few years, distracted driving has evolved from a dangerous practice to a deadly epidemic. In the United States, it's an epidemic because everyone has a cell phone or a mobile device, and everyone thinks they can use their mobile phone or their device and drive safely. Well, we've learned they can't do this. Tragedy after tragedy affirms this fact. In the United States, distracted driving resulted in nearly 6,000 deaths and more than a half a million injuries in 2008, each of them completely avoidable.

The victims aren't just statistics. They're parents who've lost children and children who've lost parents.

In a moment, you'll hear from Jennifer Smith, who will share her heartbreaking story. Jacy Good also is in the audience and lives with the unimaginable, terrible consequences of distracted driving every single day.

And we thank you both, Jennifer and Jacy for putting faces on this critical problem and for transforming the worst experiences of your lives into an effort that will save the lives of many others.

But distracted driving isn't just an American problem; it's a global crisis -- maybe the least-recognized public health and safety crisis of the 21st century. Around the world, there are countless other people just like Jennifer and Jacy, people who suffered the devastating blow that comes from a distracted driving accident.

The Global Road Safety Partnership estimates that driver behavior is responsible for between 80 (percent) and 90 percent of all roadway accidents. As the numbers of cars on the road and cell phone subscriptions worldwide continue to multiply, the numbers of tragedies will continue to rise in turn.

In fact, the World Health Organization projects that by 2030 traffic accidents will climb to the fifth leading cause of deaths worldwide -- higher on the list than diabetes or HIV/AIDS; higher than malaria or tuberculosis.

We believe distracted driving, in particular, contributes to the rising death toll, and we're here today to talk about solutions.

Mr. Secretary General, your U.N. directive sends a powerful message, and we are grateful to you. Thank you very much. And we thank you and your employees around the world for leading by example, and hope other employers will soon enact anti-distracted driving policies of their own.

Already many governments are taking action to put an end to distracted driving. To date, 32 countries, including Brazil, France, Japan, Jordan, Spain, Taiwan and the United Kingdom, have enacted laws that restrict drivers' use of handheld devices. Portugal has outlawed all phone use -- hand-held or hand-free -- in the driver's seat.

But our nations can do more if we work together.

President Obama's administration and U.S. government stands ready to lend our experience to any country looking for ideas on how to change drivers' minds and actions. And you only need to listen to a story like Jennifer's or Jacy's to understand the urgency of our effort.

Distracted driving affects all of us, people of every age group and background, living in countries big and small, participating in economies developed and undeveloped. Putting away your cell phone while you drive can save lives -- maybe even your own.

That's one message we hope people everywhere will receive loud and clear.

With that, I'm privileged to introduce Jennifer Smith, president of Focus-Driven, which is an advocacy group that was formed after our distracted driving meeting in Washington last year, and we're grateful for her leadership. Since then, Jennifer has become one of America's leading voices in our campaign to eradicate distracted driving.

Please welcome Jennifer.

Jennifer Smith: I would like to thank the Secretary-General, the U.S. Ambassador, the Russia Ambassador, and Secretary LaHood for letting me be a part of this event and this global call to action to end distracted driving.

I am the president and one of the co-founding board members of FocusDriven, advocates for cell-free driving.

Each year, thousands of families suffer the loss of loved ones needlessly at the hands of drivers distracted by their cell phones. Whether texting, using hands-free or hand-held devices, these drivers are not only putting their lives in danger, but the lives of every other person on the road.

Personally, I've committed to fighting this epidemic because of an event that happened in September of 2008. My mom, Linda Doyle, from Oklahoma, who was a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a sister and a friend. She was my greatest hero.

She was leaving her neighborhood, driving through the intersection, when a 20-year-old driver ran a red light, t-boning her car at 45 to 50 miles per hour, killing her on impact.

The driver never saw the red light. He never saw the other car stopped at the light. He never even tried to brake. The first thing he said when he got out of the car was he was on his phone, and he never saw my mother's car right in front of him.

He was not texting, he was not e-mailing, he was not dialing, he was not reaching for his phone. He was doing what hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people do every day -- having a simple conversation while driving.

Here with me today, as Secretary LaHood mentioned, is Jacy Good, our newest board member at FocusDriven. Two years ago yesterday, her life was changed forever. It was her college graduation day in Pennsylvania. She was riding home with her mom and her dad when an 18-year-old driver who was talking on his cell phone failed to notice the red light and turned left.

As he did this, the driver of a tractor-trailer swerved to miss the young man and slammed full-force into her parents' car. Jay and Jean Good, Jacy's parents, both died. Jacy suffered a broken tibia and fibula, broken clavicle, shattered pelvis, a broken wrist and two broken feet. She also had a lacerated liver, two partially collapsed lungs, two damaged carotid arteries, and a traumatic brain injury.

Her neurologist gave her a 10 percent chance of living. As you can see, she is here today and she fights every day to save others from the same tragedy.

The four other board members of FocusDriven all lost children. Twelve-year-old Joe Teater, 13-year-old Margay Schee, nine-year-old Erica Forney, and 16-year-old Cady Reynolds.

The distracted driving epidemic is not just an Oklahoma or a Pennsylvania problem. It's not even just an American problem. It is a human problem affecting the entire world. Across the entire globe we are losing mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, friends, grandparents, loved ones.

Cell phone dangers while driving have reached epidemic proportions, and there are deadly consequences. These numbers of these victims are real people. They are not just statistics, as Secretary LaHood said. These are human lives being taken for a phone call.

With the executive order signed by President Obama last fall, it was the first step of many in the right direction. And now, with the directive to the U.N. employees to also stop texting while driving, we are setting an example for everyone that safety and their lives are our priority.

No call -- hands-free or hand-held, no e-mail and no text is worth a life. As I now tell anyone who will listen, it's no longer a matter of if this is going to happen to you; it's when.

By working together with the global and anti-distracted effort today, we can help prevent other families in the U.S. and around the entire world from experiencing the same senseless and totally preventable loss that I and countless others have endured. So once again, on behalf of FocusDriven, we would like to thank all of you today for allowing us to be here and to be part of this global call to action to end the epidemic of distracted driving. It's an honor.

Thank you.

Secretary LaHood: Thank you, Jennifer. Thank you.

Moderator: We're going to take a few questions. Out of respect to our guests, we'd ask that you keep them to the topic at hand.

I think the Secretary-General actually needs to leave for another event. The others will stay for questions.

Moderator: Does anyone have questions?

Reporter: For either of the two Ambassadors, Ms. Smith wasn’t obviously just talking about texting, she was talking about hands-free. So I guess I wonder, what’s the relation? I mean is today’s call limited simply to actually texting on a phone or using it, or whether it moves to hands-free? I didn’t know if the UN’s prohibition would extend to that as well. For Secretary LaHood, road safety issue, I’m sorry to ask on this state visit that’s taking place, the issue of Mexican trucks, is there a safety element to it?

Secretary LaHood: What happened to the idea that we were going to stick to the topic? Mexican trucks have nothing to do with distracted driving. I can tell you that right now. I’ve been working on that issue for a year now too. But I will tell you this. This is a giant step for us to be here at the UN and for the kind of resolution that has been passed and the kind of attention that’s being paid to this. We’re at the starting date on this. We’re right at where people were at, when 10 years ago, people said, ‘You can’t get people to buckle up.’ So we started a program called, “click it or ticket.” Now 85 percent of the people that get in a car, buckle their seatbelt. We’re right at the place where America was at with .08 and drunk driving, when people said, ‘You’ll never get drunk drivers off the road.” At .08 we had good enforcement and now people take seriously that idea that if your blood alcohol is above .08, that you’re going to be arrested and lose your driving privileges.

So this is a big step for us because it acknowledges that it‘s an epidemic, which I have said, because everybody owns a cell phone and people think they can drive their car safely and use their cell phone and they can’t. And people think they can text and drive. You know if you’re looking down at a Blackberry, texting a message for 4 seconds, your car goes the length of a football field, without paying attention. So what’s being done here today is quite extraordinary and from my point of view, all of these things are distractions we’re working very hard through the Presidential Executive Order and a number of other things. Congress has two bills pending, which I believe will get a good deal of attention in the Senate, one from Senator Rockefeller and one from Senator Schumer from New York. They take this seriously. And so, Focus Driven is doing a good job, advocacy all over the country. We’re going to work with driver education programs. But to raise this to an international level is just an extraordinary move for all of us.

Anybody else? Yes sir.

Reporter: My question relates to Ambassador Churkin’s comment about the plan for action, you mention funding. Any idea how much money is going to sought or be needed for whatever you had in mind and where’s it going to come from?

Secretary LaHood: Let me tell you about what we’re doing. In the US, President Obama has requested 50 million dollars in our budget to do distracted driving grants for enforcement. We just gave two grants out, one in Syracuse, NY, and one in Hartford, CT. Two hundred thousand dollars each, matched by another one hundred thousand dollars, so that police, when they see somebody on a phone, can write them a ticket. In the first week in Hartford, 1,100 tickets were written. We know that strong enforcement is important. From the United States point of view, we’re putting, the President’s, putting a good deal of resources behind this.

Reporter: I take it, Ambassador Churkin: you don’t know how this is going to play out yet. Is that your answer?

Ambassador Churkin: (nods)

Reporter: OK, thank you.

Reporter: A very quick question for the Ambassadors. Is the call here for people to change their behavior or for governments to change behavior through legislature?

Ambassador Rice: I think it’s both. You heard us talk about the need to change individual behavior. That’s crucial. This problem gets solved one driver at a time. On the other hand, the steps that the United States has taken, now the United Nations, 32 other countries, are critical in changing the regulatory framework in which this problem is addressed. So they’re mutually reinforcing and they’re both important. But each of us, as individuals, has it in our power, to do the right thing. I’m learning too. And I’m going to be a far more responsible driver than I would have been without knowledge of this problem and the consequences that it causes.

Reporter: To what degree have you engaged the telephone companies about this problem?

Secretary LaHood: Well I will tell you what I’ve done. I’ve met with the cell phone industry. In Washington, there’s a group that represents all of the cell phone companies, and I’ve met with their board a few months ago. And I asked them for their help. We know that they have very smart people who could technologically do things to phones while people are driving and we need their help on this. A couple of companies have stepped up by using billboards that discourage people from texting and driving, using cell phones. But they get it. They know they can be part of the solution. I think they want to be part of the solution. And we’re going to continue to work with them on that.

Reporter: Is texting the only problem? I’ve lived in countries where cars are unsafe, drivers of buses are chewing who knows what, and roads aren’t marked, where road deaths are the number one killer. Are you going to go further than our?

Secretary LaHood: If you look at the track record of the Department of Transportation, we have an organization called NHTSA. It’s a safety organization. We work 24-7 on making sure that roads are safe, that flying is safe, that driving is safe. We have banned the use of cell phones and texting for bus drivers and truck drivers. We think that you just can’t do this. There was a terrible accident in California where people were killed. It was disclosed that the train driver was texting and driving and so we have stepped up and taken action on this. I agree with what Ambassador Rice said. Everybody has to take personal responsibility. But we do need good laws and we need good enforcement. So are other things unsafe? We pay a lot of attention to safety, whether it’s in trains, planes or automobiles. And we do this with the idea that somebody in our government has to take responsibility.

We focused on distracted driving because of the horrible stories that we heard a year ago at the distracted driving summit that we had in Washington, where over 300 people attended and 5,000 people were involved over the Internet and we’re having another one, another distracted driving summit, this year. We’re hoping to do it in Chicago. Oprah Winfrey adopted this as one of her signature programs. Every guest that she has on her show, she has them sign a pledge that they won’t be out there texting and driving and using cell phones. And so it’s catching on. But safety will always be our number one priority in trains, planes or automobiles and in all that we do.

Ambassador Churkin: Secretary LaHood has stood up in defense of the U.S. government; let me stand up in defense of the international community, because I do believe that in my remarks I did mention the decade of road safety and that the work program includes the whole range of issues. And we are working on incorporating the texting and telephoning into this working plan. But I also believe that the reason why this particular issue of texting and cell phones is important is that it’s a relatively new phenomenon. I mean, we’ve been facing other things for a long time. In Russia, for example, drunken driving is a huge problem and let me tell you the issue of road safety is a presidential level of attention issue in Russia. For example, President Medvedev recently initiated, put in an initiative to tighten the rules for drunken driving. But as new phenomena come up, we need to address them so this is one that is very important in this regard.

Reporter: Ambassador Churkin – we know that General Assembly Resolutions are not legally binding. What exactly are you going to do to address that specific problem? You talk about drunk driving. What about texting?

Ambassador Churkin: I think this event will allow me to recommend to Moscow that our legal people visit this issue very seriously and since this is a new phenomenon in Russia, we have to work on those matters as well.

Moderator: Thank you, everybody.


PRN: 2010/100