If a political candidate had a habit of walking into crowded places twirling a gun around with the safety off, would that be considered worth mentioning to voters? Or would it be passed off as a personal foible, something to be grown out of and regretted? If nobody was ever hurt, would it matter at all?
While candidates’ — and all public figures’ — personal lives undergo thorough scrutiny, as do aspects of their public life such as taxes and voting, one very public action is routinely ignored, or brushed off as an almost-charming personality trait: Their driving record.
Not so in the current mayoral campaign here in Portland, where the driving record of one candidate, Jefferson Smith, is so bad that he felt the need to come out about it to the press at the very beginning of the campaign. I interviewed him about it on Twitter back in June, and in the wake of more recent scrutiny by the Oregonian, his campaign recently released his full Oregon driving record. It’s even hairier than expected, an eye-poppingly long litany of speeding and other moving violations interspersed with failures to pay fines, file paperwork and appear in court, which has several times resulted in a suspended license. In one of the most recent instances, he could not show proof of insurance.
Smith has couched these revelations with the points that he is very embarrassed by his record, but that he has never actually hurt anyone while driving, that if elected mayor he would have a taxpayer-funded driver, and, more recently, that his ADHD might be a factor in his driving record. Many of his supporters are prominent Portland bicycle advocates, including the Bike Walk Vote PAC and many of the regular commenters on BikePortland. Among supporters, feelings seem to be mixed — some are embarrassed by his record; others say that it has no relation to his character or ability to lead.
So who’s right? Should reckless driving reflect badly on a public figure? It’s carheaded for sure to think that speeding is an innocuous behavior. Traffic crashes are one of the top causes of death and serious disability in the US; speeding is a factor in one third of all fatal ones. There is some evidence also that unlicensed drivers are more likely than others to be involved in a fatal crash. Distracted driving (“underattention” is the reason Smith provided via Twitter for the frequency with which he has been pulled over) has only begun to be studied as a factor in crashes, but it appears to be a significant one. That none of Smith’s violations involved a crash or injury seems a matter of luck.
All that said, Smith is hardly alone in the annals of politicians who behave badly on the roads. Our current mayor, Sam Adams, does not have a squeaky clean driving record, after all. And revelations of such behavior haven’t always swung the election; Rob Ford was elected mayor of Toronto despite a drunk driving conviction was revealed. GWB and Cheney both had DUIs prior to their time in the White House. Prominent political spouses have also been in the news for their driving; Maria Shriver, while first lady of California, was photographed driving while talking on a cell phone shortly after her husband signed a law banning exactly that. And most poignantly, Laura Bush was at fault in a fatal car crash as a teenager.
For any of these political figures, the real question is not whether or not they slipped up once, but whether or not reckless driving is a pattern for them. It’s an important question in part because of the simple fact that we rarely know or even ask. Full driving records are not often revealed in campaigns, the way tax records and voter registration records are — simply because driving is rarely considered to be an issue in this country, period. That desperately needs to change.
Traffic violations are so much the norm, and given so little credence or attention, and auto-related deaths and disabilities such a pervasive epidemic (not to mention the public health, psychological, and economic fallouts of serious crashes), that it seems especially appropriate to call on public figures to set a higher bar, or at least a less abysmally low bar — particularly ones like Smith who are campaigning aggressively on active transportation issues.
Do I think a political candidate’s driving record is more important than their leadership record? No. But it saddens me that the record of someone’s habitual behavior while controlling a machine far deadlier than a gun in a public place is treated as a negligible character issue and a private personality flaw while, for instance, any public figure’s private relationships are 100% up for grabs. Behind the wheel of a car, we certainly seem to feel like we’re in a private world where our actions affect nobody but ourselves; but daily tragedies demonstrate the reverse to be true.
Perhaps it is unfair to hold politicians to a higher standard than the general public. But I think that in this case of actions behind the wheel, it’s negligent not to.