Kirk Landers: A show about … nothing

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By Kirk Landers, Editor Emeritus

Jerry Seinfeld once described his long-running television comedy as a show about . . . nothing. It was an engaging remark, quoted frequently even by those of us who didn’t watch the show because it covers so much of life.

A current case in point is the Obama Administration’s attempt to start a public dialogue about highway safety.

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood used the month of May to make public statements about the need for safer roads in America, and the evils of texting while driving. It wasn’t the story of the year, but the subject got some media coverage and, if you didn’t look too closely, it might have seemed like the Administration was doing something important in the surface transportation field.

For the skeptics among us, it was an all too familiar subterfuge.

Back in 2004 and 2005, when the Bush Administration was trying to look concerned about roads while also refusing to increase a woefully inadequate highway budget, they sent forth Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta to lead a national dialogue about highway safety.

Then and now, the tactic was a ruse. It is like having a “dialogue” about the importance of rain for growing crops. Yes, we need some rain. No, talking about it won’t make the skies cloud up and sprinkle.

It is a show about . . . nothing.

Don’t get me wrong. Reducing traffic accidents and fatalities is a worthy goal, and there are good people who have made that goal their life’s work. I applaud them.

But traffic safety isn’t a federal issue. Statistically, U.S. highways are among the safest in the world. Traffic fatalities rise and fall moderately with the economy, but by and large are stable.

Ironically, the things that might make a substantial impact in the safety statistics are things that cost more money – better signage, wider lanes, broader shoulders, better road surfaces, less water on the pavement in rain storms, and more and better street lights, to name just a few obvious examples.

This is ironic because the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, wants to talk about safety because it doesn’t want to talk about dollars. Any talk about dollars inevitably leads to a dialogue about the federal fuel tax and that is a conversation that makes the President’s knees buckle. This President and the last one. Left or right.

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So we are treated to the spectacle of a national dialogue about . . . nothing. No one is against safety. That would be like arguing against Santa or Mother Teresa. It is the perfect cover for administrations in this strange Borrow and Spend era of Americana: by talking about roads and safety, you seem to be doing something about roads and safety without actually doing anything.

Case in point: Secretary LaHood’s safety dialogue in May delved into the issue of text-messaging while driving. With a straight face, he conveyed the Administration’s opinion that texting while driving isn’t a good thing.

Of course, laws prohibiting texting while driving are up to states and local governments to pass and to enforce, so the Administration’s strong stance on the topic is academic, if not absurd.

We can probably assume there is also federal opposition to reading Shakespeare while driving, and even working cross word puzzles. In the months to come, perhaps we will have a dialogue about drinking while driving and/or injecting intravenous drugs. Thank goodness there is material for shows about nothing, otherwise, we’d just have . . . nothing.v