On July 17, 2009, my daughter Casey was walking in Ocean City, N.J., to go to her summer job on the boardwalk. A 58-year-old man took his eyes off the road to reach for his GPS, ran through a stop sign, and hit Casey. He said that he never saw her. She died in the hospital a few hours later. Twelve years later, it is still hard to fully grasp that I am alive, and my child is dead.
The driver who hit my daughter was distracted, which can happen when drivers take their eyes or minds off the road, or their hands off the wheel. All it takes is a second to have deadly consequences: Roughly 3,000 people are killed and 400,000 are injured by distracted driving in the U.S. each year.
Young people are particularly at risk. Among drivers involved in fatal crashes, those aged 19 and younger are the most likely to drive distracted, and nearly 40% of high school students admit to sending texts or emails while driving in the last 30 days.
Since Casey’s death, despite numerous federal, state, and industry campaigns to raise awareness about distracted driving, far too many are killed and injured each year. Why have we not been able to make more progress?
Many awareness campaigns have overemphasized the dangers of distracted driving. But many drivers believe, hypocritically, that they can drive safely while distracted, even if others can’t. Those who have “successfully” driven distracted — as in, sent an email or text without getting into a crash — do not feel it is dangerous when they do it, so campaigns that stress the dangers of distracted driving may largely fall on deaf ears. I get it — before Casey died, I drove distracted, too.
I believe these awareness campaigns need to take a different approach.
First, let’s start tapping into the fear drivers have about other drivers. Most drivers — 63% — are more afraid of distracted drivers than drunk drivers, suggesting that even those who think it’s safe for them to drive distracted are afraid when others do it. Imagine you are driving, and a distracted driver runs a red light, crashing into your car. You survive but your child is killed. You were looking at your phone at the time of the crash; had you been paying attention, you would have been able to avoid the crash. I know several drivers who lost children or spouses under these circumstances. They are tormented by the realization that their actions contributed to a loved one’s death.
“These drivers are tormented by the realization that their actions contributed to a loved one’s death.”
Instead of confronting drivers about how it is dangerous for them to get distracted, we must use their legitimate concern about other distracted drivers. Campaigns may change drivers’ behaviors by teaching that “distracted drivers can’t be defensive drivers” — if you’re looking at an email, you can’t protect your passengers from another driver who is also looking at an email.
Second, I believe we need to focus our campaign efforts on creating a generation of kids who, unlike their parents, will choose not to drive distracted when they get their licenses.
I’ve spoken to hundreds of thousands of kids as part of our nonprofit organization EndDD.org, and the majority — I’d estimate 70% — say their parents drive distracted. So even if parents say not to do it, their behavior signals that it’s OK. Many teachers and child psychologists have told me it’s important to talk to kids about distracted driving early, before they even get behind the wheel — akin to anti-smoking campaigns that deter kids from picking up the habit.
At EndDD.org, we are teaching students, including those in elementary school, to speak up when parents drive distracted. Through focus groups, we have learned that the best way for kids to get through to their parents is by saying something like: “Mom, I love you, but I don’t feel safe when you drive me and look at your phone.” Upon hearing those words, the vast majority of parents say they would put their phones down; some members of our focus groups even get tears in their eyes.
I changed the way I drive not because I believed it was dangerous, but because my daughter was killed by a distracted driver. It shouldn’t have to take a tragedy for all of us to do the same.