At the United Nations on Wednesday there will be an event with the Secretary General and U.S. and Russian representatives billed as a “global call to action on ending distracted driving.”  Ban Ki Moon,  Susan Rice, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin and the founder of an anti-texting while driving advocacy group, Focus Driven,  are to attend. 

As far as UN events go, anytime you have the Secretary General, U.S. and Russian Ambassadors (not to mention an additional U.S. Cabinet secretary) it is a big deal.  So what is behind the U.S.-led push to create global norms against texting while driving?  This is speculation, but I suspect it may stem from a collaboration between the husband and wife team of White House officials:  Samantha Power and Cass Sunstein.

Samantha Power is likely familiar to most readers. She’s the Pulitzer prize winning anti-genocide activist who now serves as senior director for multi-lateral affairs at the National Security Council. The United Nations falls squarely under her remit. 

Her husband, Cass Sunstein, may be less familiar to you all.  He is a University of Chicago legal scholar who is famous for (among other things) studying how public policy can be tweaked to induce people to take fewer harmful risks.  As luck would have it, Ben Wallace-Wells profiled Sunstein in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. This nugget from the article encapsulates the central question that drives much of Sunstein’s scholarship:

The small risks that people or companies take (in adding increments of carbon to the atmosphere or — as in the case of the recent Gulf Coast oil spill — maintaining drilling rigs) sometimes threaten to cascade into a catastrophe. So how can the government change the framework of choices that particular people are faced with so that their own small errors in risk perception don’t expose the whole of society? (emphasis mine)

Sunstein currently serves as the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, or “regulatory czar.”  His office deals almost exclusively with domestic policy. But I can’t help to think that the idea of creating global norms on texting while driving is a perfect combination of Sunstein’s technocratic behavioral economics with Power’s humanitarian and multi-lateralist impulses. It is a good way to “nudge” millions of people around the world into adopting less dangerous behavior. (In the United States  alone, distracted drivers killed 6,000 people in 2008.)  The problem is likely much worse in the developing world —  the World Bank warns that traffic accidents may become a  leading cause of death in many developing world countries by 2030.  

The bottom line is that many thousands of lives will be saved if texting while driving becomes as legally and culturally taboo as, say, drunk driving.  The UN is the perfect venue to take this cause global–and I dare say that the Sunstein-Power partnership would have been the perfect duo to have taken this issue to the UN in the first place.     

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