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Auto Care and Safety

How a Young Girl’s Death Started a Mission to End Distracted Driving

Photo: Courtesy of Joel Feldman

Teens die in car crashes at nearly three times the rate of any other age group and today your teen is more likely to be killed or seriously injured as a result of distracted driving than drunk driving. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that there are simple and effective steps we can take as parents to protect our children.

Hitting close to home

I have two children but only one is still living. My 21-year-old daughter Casey was killed by a distracted driver in July of 2009. She was walking across the street in a crosswalk on a beautiful summer day when a distracted driver rolled through a stop sign and hit her. Casey was thrown forward and run over by the tires of a delivery van. Casey was conscious for a few minutes.

I can’t help but think about my child, lying on the road, alert, knowing what had happened and wondering how scared she must have been. Her last words were “I want my mom.” My wife is still tormented because she could not be with Casey to comfort her in those last moments. 

I frequently drove distracted before Casey was killed. I would read texts, e-mails, eat, talk on the phone and look at papers while driving. I did so even with the people I loved most in the world — my children and my wife — as passengers. I was lucky I never killed a family member or anyone else’s child, but I no longer drive distracted. I changed the way I drive because of Casey’s death.

You’re not an exception

I know you may think you’re an experienced driver; you’ve never been in a crash; that it only takes a few seconds to read or send that text; that nothing bad will happen; that it’s an important call or text and that you’re a good multitasker. I’ve heard those same excuses — futile attempts to explain what happened — when speaking with those who have killed while driving distracted. 

A parent’s greatest fear is the death of a child. Given that the leading cause of death for teens is car crashes, parents need to be aware of the risks. According to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration fatalities increased from 2014 to 2015, reversing what had been a general downward trend in crash fatalities since 2007. Distraction is now believed to be responsible for more than 50 percent of serious teen crashes. In 2015, distraction-related fatal crashes increased on a percentage basis more than drunk, drugged or drowsy driving crashes. Preliminary fatality estimates for 2016 look even worse than 2015.

Over the past five years I have spoken with about 100,000 students and adults across the country. When speaking with adults I ask all the parents to raise their hands. I then ask them to keep their hands raised if they would do anything to keep their children safe. Predictably, not a single hand is lowered. I then ask them to keep their hands up only if they don’t drive distracted with their children in the car. It is a rare hand that stays raised. Many of the parents look uncomfortable and embarrassed. When speaking with students more than 75 percent publicly admit that their moms and dads drive distracted. 

Setting an example

While we may believe we are always acting to keep our children safe the reality is that if we drive distracted we are exposing our children to risks from our driving and also setting a bad example. Taking chances while driving, and offering excuses for why we drive distracted, even with those we love most in the world as passengers, doesn’t make much sense.  But to make matters worse, as we drive distracted with our children watching we are teaching them that it is okay to do so. Our children copy our behaviors, good and bad.

Teens whose parents drive distracted are nearly three times as likely to also drive distracted. I have spoken with parents whose children died in one car crashes because of distraction. It’s impossible to convey the look on the face of a bereaved parent, or the anguish in their voice, when wondering whether their child was texting at the time of their death because they had seen mom or dad texting. As parents we want to be the best role models we can for our children but we are failing when it comes to safe driving.

What will it take for moms and dads to change the way they drive? You can wait until someone you love is killed by a distracted driver or you kill someone through your distracted driving, or you can change the way you drive today. It shouldn’t take a tragedy for all of us to change the way we drive in order to keep our children safe.

Building a safer culture

If you have driven distracted with your kids in the car tell them it was wrong to do so and ask for their help in reminding you not to drive distracted. Children as young as 5 years old are helping keep their parents and themselves safe by doing just that. If you have teen drivers in the family, have that same conversation with them but resist the urge to lecture your children about their driving. This conversation should be all about your habits.

Be the driver you want your children to be. Each and every time you drive, model safe, distraction-free driving for your children. If you have driven distracted, consider putting your phone on silent and placing it out of reach while driving. It takes time and commitment to change habits. Create a family “safe driving agreement” to help you do it.

Let your children know that it is important to watch others who drive them and to tell you if they see other parents, or older siblings, driving distracted. Talk to everyone who drives your children and tell them your expectations. Most parents will talk to other parents before they let their children attend a sleepover but not many parents ask other adults about how they drive their children.

Encourage your children to respectfully ask others who drive them not to drive distracted. Your teen can and should share responsibility with drivers for arriving safely by offering to text or make a call for the driver. By making safer habits like these a norm in our household, we can help minimize the risks of this troubling trend.

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