Health: "No SMS is worth an SOS"

UNITED NATIONS — By 2030, road accidents will be the fifth leading cause of deaths in the world. Already it is the top killer of young people (15- to 29-year-olds), claiming more than 1.2 million lives every year.

In view of this alarming trend that also causes 50 million injuries a year, the international community has launched a global movement to spread the word that no phone call, text message or email is worth a life.

Ban Ki-moon, the United Nations Secretary-General, has prohibited 40,000 U.N. employees from texting while driving for official work. “No SMS is worth an SOS,” he said, at the launch of a campaign to end distracted driving in May.

Employers are being encouraged to enact anti-distracted driving rules worldwide. Last October, U.S. President Barack Obama issued an executive order that banned all federal employees from texting while driving.

The new project involves getting governments to enact anti-distracted driving laws and changing individual driver behavior. In its road safety report, the World Health Organization (WHO) pointed out that 90 percent of road deaths occur in developing countries, involving mostly pedestrians, cyclists and motorcyclists.

More than half of the fatalities occur in 10 countries: Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and the U.S. The global losses are estimated to be $518 billion and costs governments between 1 and 3 percent of GDP, according to the WHO.

(Watch a video about killer roads in India, where a fatal road accident happens once every five minutes, according to WHO.)

There is now a push to characterize distracted driving not just as an unsafe practice, but a lethal epidemic. In 2008, nearly 6,000 people died and more than a half a million were injured in the U.S. for lack of attention on the road.

Ray Lahood, secretary of transportation, described the mounting death toll as “the least recognized health safety crisis of the 21st century.”

“As the number of cars on the roads and cell phone subscriptions worldwide continue to multiply, the number of tragedies will continue to rise,” he said, noting that by 2030 road accidents would kill more people than HIV-AIDS, diabetes, malaria and tuberculosis.

Jennifer Smith, a leading voice against distracted driving in the U.S., lost her mother in 2008 when a 20-year-old driver crashed into her car killing her in Oklahoma.

“The first thing he said when he got out of the car was that he was on his phone and he never saw my mother’s car right in front of him,” said Smith, speaking emotionally at the U.N. headquarters.

After her mother’s death, Smith founded FocusDriven, an advocacy group in Texas that fights for mobile-free driving. All of its partners have lost loved ones in accidents caused by distracted drivers.

A new member, Jacy Good, lost both parents on her college graduation day in Pennsylvania, two years ago, when a tractor swerved to avoid hitting an 18-year-old driver talking on his mobile phone but instead rammed into their car.

“The distracted driving epidemic is not just an Oklahoma or a Pennsylvania problem.” said Smith. “It is a human problem affecting the entire world. These are human lives being taken for a phone call.”

Studies show that distracted drivers are four times more likely to get into an accident. According to AAA/Seventeen magazine survey of 1,000 teens in the U.S., 46 percent text messaged while driving and 51 percent talked on the phone while driving.

Several nations and civil society organizations have already launched initiatives to prevent distracted driving deaths. Portugal, for instance, has outlawed all phone use in the driver’s seat. Individual endeavors include efforts like those of talk show host, Oprah Winfrey, who asks guests and viewers to sign a pledge not to drive and use mobile phones.

Now the United States and Russia have jointly launched the global initiative to end distracted driving. In March, Russia sponsored a U.N. General Assembly resolution that declared 2011-2020 as decade of road safety action and specifically discouraged texting while driving. Russia also hosted the first-ever global road safety summit in March, called "Make Roads Safe."

A follow-up document is being prepared that sets targets for reduction of road fatalities by 2020 that includes improving architecture, increasing funds for safety and installing better monitoring techniques.

An important recommendation is also collaboration with mobile phone companies. American communication company, AT&T started the campaign called “Txting and Drivng … It Can Wait,” this year, joining Verizon’s “Don't Text and Drive.”

“We are convinced that now it is high time to fully integrate the issue of distraction into the plan of action,” said Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the U.N. To date, out of the 192 U.N. member states, only 32 nations have passed laws against using handheld devices while driving.

In New Delhi, using the mobile phone can fetch a penalty of 1,000 rupees (approximately $20), but enforcement of traffic rules is lax. Even now, for instance, people in most cities get away with not wearing seat belts in cars.

The mobile phone ban is not nationwide in India, where an estimated 2 million people suffer a disability resulting from a traffic crash. But for some people, not taking an important call can spell professional disaster.

A New Delhi-based young corporate lawyer, Jitender Tanikella, admits that it will probably take a couple of hefty fines for him to stop. “It’s impossible to ignore client calls as you’re always expected to be connected 24/7,” he said.

Sharma is the New York/United Nations correspondent for the Press Trust of India and is a freelance journalist.