The Distracted Driving of American Diplomacy

In January 2010, a message went out from the State Department’s headquarters in Washington, D.C. to every U.S. embassy around the world.  In this message, the State Department instructed each of its embassies to conduct a formal diplomatic démarche with their host governments on a pressing topic the State Department had recently grown quite concerned with: texting while driving.  In practice, this meant that somebody from the U.S. Embassy would have to go in person to find a counterpart in the host country’s government, explain to them how concerned the United States was becoming with the problem of “distracted driving,” ask them what policies/laws their country had concerning texting while driving, and then report that information back to Washington.

At first, one might wonder why American diplomats all around the world had to scramble to set up governmental meetings about distracted driving–does the State Department really have nothing better to do?  In the State Department’s defense, however, traffic accidents are a big deal everywhere, and are one of the leading causes of human death.  It’s estimated that there are about “1.24 million traffic deaths a year – nearly triple the UN’s estimate of annual murders, and twenty times the estimated annual total of deaths in wars.”  The World Health Organization is quite concerned, noting that traffic accidents are the single most important cause of death among those aged 15-29 worldwide, and further estimating that traffic accidents cost the planet about 3% of global GDP annually.  So it’s very likely that the impulse behind the U.S.’s worldwide démarche was humanitarian in nature.  Still, while the WHO’s most recent report does note that “distracted driving is a serious and growing threat to road safety,” it nevertheless appears as seventh out of seven reforms countries should undertake to improve road users’ behavior (behind things like increasing motorcycle helmet use, increasing seat-belt usage, and reducing drunk driving), suggesting that road safety experts do not accord it topmost priority at the moment.

More broadly, the démarche illustrates a disturbing one-size-fits-all diplomatic mentality, as well as some of the perils of America’s hegemonic influence.  The WikiLeaks-hosted Public Library of U.S. Diplomacy records the responses that 62* U.S. embassies sent back to Washington after having completed their missions: everywhere from Bangui to Budapest, Sana’a to Seoul.  And reading between the lines, it’s pretty easy to get a sense of how many American embassies, particularly in the developing world, thought their instructions from Washington were rather ridiculous and very poorly tailored to the actual conditions in their host countries.  Some expressed their dissatisfaction via arch terseness, whereas others were more than happy to explain in great detail how their host governments might have more pressing matters to deal with than texting while driving laws:

Many roads in Chad are so deeply pot-holed, or function so much like sand-traps, that they are suitable only for travel via camel, horse or donkey. There are few police on public thoroughfares except in large towns, few hospitals to which to take accident victims, no real ability outside the capital to enforce existing driver’s license or vehicle maintenance laws, and little formal driver’s training. Driver’s licenses can be obtained in many locations through bribery. Regulations on how vehicles may be used are spotty: it is not against the law to pilot a motorcycle with four riders, or to carry a 50-gallon drum filled with gasoline on the back of a motorcycle and a live goat on the handlebars. Transport vehicles are often overloaded to the point where they collapse under their cargo, and passenger vehicles designed for eight routinely carry 20 inside and one or more hanging out the open doors. Recent laws ban carrying more than 20 passengers in the open back of pick-up or transport trucks unless seats and an overhead cover are installed. The 1980-era Peugeots that serve as taxis in N’Djamena are know euphemistically as “neuf morts,” as they are assumed to kill an average of nine people when they crash. Chad recently followed Cameroon in passing motorcycle helmet laws, but many of those who possess helmets carry rather than wear them when they ride.

Taking a step back, very few other countries around the world besides the U.S. would attempt to unilaterally conduct a worldwide governmental information campaign on this scale, particularly unprompted and for an issue that is unquestionably within the remit of countries’ domestic politics.  For better and worse, this is the unique role the United States continues to play in global politics, and the U.S.’s influence is such that countries have to pay attention when it speaks.  In Tanzania, the démarche seems to have been conducted at the very high level of a direct meeting between the U.S. Ambassador and the Tanzanian Foreign Minister–one can only wonder at what was going through the Minister’s mind during the meeting…

* Because of the semi-random nature in which the Cablegate cables were collected, only some of the cable traffic in a given year was recorded and leaked.  Presumably all or almost all U.S. diplomatic missions in the world undertook the démarche as requested.

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