WHEN I started out as a TV reporter in Nashville in 1973, a death from drunken driving was big news. One person killed by a drunken driver would lead our local broadcast. Then, as the number of drunken driving deaths across the country continued to rise, the stakes for coverage got even higher. One death wasn’t good enough anymore. Two deaths — that would warrant a report. Then a whole family had to die before the news would merit mention at the top of the broadcast. The country, all of us, had gotten used to the idea of drunken driving. I just kept thinking: How many people have to die before we “get it”?
Fortunately, we did get it, and since 1980, the number of annual traffic fatalities due to drunken driving has decreased to under 15,500 from more than 30,000. But in recent years, another kind of tragic story has begun to emerge with ever greater frequency. This time, we are mourning the deaths of those killed by people talking or sending text messages on their cellphones while they drive.
Earlier this month, I visited Shelley and Daren Forney, a couple in Fort Collins, Colo., whose 9-year-old daughter, Erica, was on her bicycle, just 15 pedals from her front door, when she was struck and killed by a driver who was distracted by a cellphone. I think about Erica’s death and how senseless and stupid it was — caused by a driver distracted by a phone call that just couldn’t wait.
Sadly, there are far too many stories like hers. At least 6,000 people were killed by distracted drivers in 2008, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and the number is rising. A lot of good work already is happening to try to change this. President Obama signed an executive order banning texting while driving on federal business. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood is pushing for tougher laws and more enforcement. States are passing laws, too. Local groups are gaining strength, spurred by too many deaths close to home.
But we are hesitant to change. I saw this firsthand when I instituted a policy at my company that forbids employees from using their phones for company business while driving. I heard countless stories about how hard it was for people to stop talking and texting while driving. Everyone is busy. Everyone feels she needs to use time in the car to get things done. But what happened to just driving?
It was difficult for my employees to adjust, but they have. Life is more precious than taking a call or answering an e-mail message. Because even though we think we can handle using our cellphone in the car, the loss of thousands of lives has shown we can’t.
So many issues that we have to deal with seem beyond our control: natural disasters, child predators, traffic jams. Over the years, I’ve done shows on just about all of them. But this is a real problem we can do something about and get immediate results. All we have to do is hang up or switch off. It really is that simple. Once we do that, not another son or daughter will have to die because someone was on the phone and behind the wheel — and just not paying attention.
So starting from the moment you finish this article, and in the days, weeks and years that follow, give it up. Please. And to those who feel like this is asking too much, think about your own child just 15 pedals from your front door. Struck down.
Oprah Winfrey is the chairman of Harpo Studios and the host of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”