Today is a somber day for anyone even remotely affiliated with efforts to improve US traffic safety. The reason is because Ray Lahood, a true champion of highway safety, announced that he is leaving as the Secretary of Transportation as soon as his successor is found.
Mr. Lahood, a former school teacher and Republican congressman from Illinois, was confirmed by the US Senate on January 21, 2009. His confirmation as Secretary of Transportation occurred exactly three weeks after I co-founded ZoomSafer, a technology company dedicated to developing software for mobile devices to prevent distracted driving.
With that backdrop in mind I'd like to share 5 observations on Mr. Lahood's tenure as Secretary of Transportation and what it meant to me as an innovator and entrepreneur.
- It's better to be lucky than good. The old adage is especially true for an entrepreneur who is starting a new business. And, in regards to ZoomSafer, we were very lucky that Secretary Lahood entered the picture and immediately engaged in a passionate and high-profile fight to end distracted driving. He created a stage, not only for himself, but for many others to talk candidly about the incredible risks associated with mobile device use while driving.
- Shockingly, gridlock can be a good thing. In the beginning of his tenure, LaHood worked closely with President Obama to stimulate the ailing economy through transportation construction projects including the development of high-speed rail systems. But both efforts were stalemated when Republicans regained control of the House in the 2010. In the face of congressional gridlock, Lahood focused his attention on improving highway safety, with an emphasis on preventing distracted driving.
- History repeats itself (maybe). The "national epidemic" known as distracted driving was seen by Lahood as similar to other behaviors commonly exhibited by US motorists in years past. Lahood made this point repeatedly when he drew comparisons to successful efforts to increase seat belt use in the 1970's. If the nation could learn to wear seat belts, then certainly it could learn to put down the cell phone. At least that's how the thinking went.
- Regulations matter. As the top federal regulator of the transportation industry, Mr. Lahood was fighting to prevent distracted driving on both the consumer and commercial fronts. On the consumer front, which consists of 200 million motorists, Mr. Lahood traveled to Detroit to encourage automakers to use their advertising budgets to help spread the word and he worked with NHTSA to introduce guidelines for auto makers that would limit distractions associated with in-vehicle computer systems. On the commercial front, Mr. Lahood worked with the FMCSA to enact stiff new rules prohibiting commercial drivers from hand-held use of a mobile device.
- No Silver Bullets. Although much of Lahood's emphasis was on distracted driving legislation, regulation and education; he intuitively understood that cell phone use while driving was much more complicated than seat belt use or drunk driving. As a result, he was always very clear in his opinion that technology -- whether from auto OEMs, wireless carriers, insurance carriers, or start-ups -- would play an important and complementary role in fostering safe and legal use of mobile devices while driving.
It goes without saying that i will miss Mr. Lahood, and i sincerely thank him for all that he did in the fight to prevent distracted driving.