Joel Feldman isn’t bothered when people ask about his daughter Casey, who was killed by a distracted driver in 2009. What bothers him is when people confuse safe driving for lucky driving. For Feldman, that distinction goes a long way toward explaining why many drivers feel they can get away with things like texting on the phone while sitting behind the wheel of a car—a task that seems innocuous in today’s digital-crazed world.
But the facts tell a different story: Over 3,331 people were killed and over 387,000 injured in motor vehicle accidents connected to distracted driving, according to the NHTSA, and the National Safety Council says that at least 28 percent of vehicle crashes are caused by texting and cell phone use alone.
Those are just some of the things Feldman discusses with students across the country as founder and lead advocate for End Distracted Driving, formed seven years ago. The organization has since put together a substantial list of volunteers that speak on behalf of EDD to raise awareness related to dangerous trends.
Feldman spoke with us by phone to talk about his organization’s work, keeping Casey’s memory alive, and what’s in store for the future of EDD.
What is End Distracted Driving and what’s your mission?
We established EndDistractedDriving.org after my daughter Casey was killed by a distracted driver in 2009. After she was killed, I realized that I was driving distracted all the time. I’m a lawyer. I represent families who have lost loved ones to distracted driving. I should’ve known better. So it made me think about the way I was driving. I was asked to speak with folks about distracted driving and one thing led to another. I started doing more talks and then I said, “Gosh, I wonder if I’m really changing people’s attitudes and behaviors.”
It’s okay talking to people and telling them the story of Casey. I like to do that to keep her memory alive. But it certainly wouldn’t have the same level of meaning if I couldn’t affect other people’s behaviors. I looked for a distracted driving presentation that was scientifically based, that had been tested. Couldn’t find one. I went to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and they helped us develop a science-based distracted driving presentation. I would evaluate and update it so we were doing the best in terms of helping people decide for themselves, “Hey, I’m not the safest driver. Let me make some changes.”
It’s definitely about empowering people. It’s not confrontational. It’s not bloody or graphic. We figure out ways to reach different people, whether that’s middle school kids bugging mom and dad not to drive distracted, or if it’s teen drivers talking about how they can influence their moms and dads to drive safer, and, of course parents. Ask any group of parents if they would do anything to keep their children safe and they all raise their hand. Ask them to keep their hands up if they never drive distracted and all hands go down. You can create these moments where people have a little bit of discomfort, and it’s one of the things we do in our presentations to connect with people and have them decide whether there’s some adjustments they can do to be safe.
The situation with Casey is devastating. There’s no way to get over something like that, but have you found purpose in what you’re doing?
It was just the seventh anniversary of Casey’s death and it’s always a time for reflection. People will tell you, “Casey’s smiling down upon you, Casey would be so proud…” I hope so. I have found greater meaning. I love talking to kids, whether it’s middle school, high school, or college. I think they’re wonderful to work with and they’re open to new ideas. I’m optimistic. There are some in traffic safety who are not optimistic about changing our culture, but I’m optimistic that we’re going to change the way we think about driving. Just like drunk driving, distracted driving is no longer socially acceptable.
I’m kind of meant for this; I’m a personal injury attorney who’s represented families who’ve lost loved ones. I’ve represented people who were in distracted driving crashes. The year before Casey was killed I started a masters program because I wanted to learn about grief counseling. Then my daughter gets killed by a distracted driver. In some way I believe I was meant to do this all along.
Do you think people underestimate the dangers of distracted driving?
I’m not sure people underestimate the dangers of distracted driving or not. Yes, you could say, “If people drive distracted then they must underestimate the dangers of distracted driving.” But I think that many people who understand the dangers of distracted driving do so anyway because they think “I’m a good driver, I’m an experienced driver.”
I had an appreciation of the dangers of distracted driving, but until it sunk in, I continued to drive distracted. That’s important to pay attention to. And with respect to Jay and the folks at [Levinson and Stefani] who are doing talks, they understand that that’s the reason why we talk about the excuses we give ourselves for continuing to drive distracted. You have to explore those excuses: “Hey, does this excuse really make sense and do I want to continue to take chances?”
What’s your reaction when people say, “Well, I’m a good driver, it would never happen to me”?
I let them know that in addition to meeting hundreds of moms and dads who have lost children to distracted driving, I’ve also met with people who have killed others because of distracted driving. No one who’s killed through distracted driving doesn’t give one of the excuses: I looked away for just a few seconds, it was an important call, I’ve never been in a crash, I’m a good driver. Those excuses sound pretty hollow to the family members of those you killed, and also to yourself. And once you’ve done it you can’t change things. You can’t turn back the clock.
Are kids more at risk than adults?
I think kids are more at risk because of their inexperience. The statistics show that 16-18 years olds text 33-35 percent of the time while driving; the 19-25 year olds text at about 42 or 44 percent; the 25-34 year olds text over 50 percent. So the 16-18 year olds who text a lot less, the frequency of them being in crashes, that’s attributable to distracted driving because of their inexperience. But I also think they’re more likely to listen. I think when you get a little older you get fixed in your ways, a little stubborn. You’ve been telling yourself excuses for years and it becomes so ingrained that you’re not open to change.
The thing we have working against ourselves is that most of the time when we drive distracted, we don’t have a crash. It’s that collective experience of not being in a crash that’s always there. Maybe you’re looking at the phone and saying, “You know, I’m driving, I really ought to text somebody. Should I pull over or should I not. Well, it’s just a couple seconds. I’ve done it so many times.” So it’s that collective lock, if you will, that perpetuates the feeling that we can get away with it. There’s a big difference between being a safe driver and a lucky driver.
How do you see the future shaking out as technology advances and, supposedly, more distractions become part of everyday life?
There are challenges. I wish and hope that auto manufacturers wouldn’t find it necessary to build in-voice texting, allowing you to access Facebook in the car, things like that. There’s no need for it. But they continue to do it and the government doesn’t tell them not to do it. Just before you called I spoke with a 17-year-old who is developing an app that keeps his friends and peers safe. And it’s probably every other week I talk to teenagers or college students figuring out, “Hey, has anyone tried this? What about this?”
As I said, I’m optimistic. Middle school kids are wonderful. They know exactly what their moms and dads are doing. I underestimated them the first time I talked to them. When I do talks with middle school kids, I get emails from their moms and dads and they say, in essence, “Gosh, you unleashed a monster on me! On one level I’m annoyed with you, but on a larger level I’m really happy, because if they’re working on me not to drive distracted, I’m hoping that’ll persist through their teenage years and they don’t drive distracted.” I think there’s a lot to be optimistic about. There’s a lot to be concerned about, a lot to be scared about, but lots to be optimistic about.
What are some things people can do to prevent distracted driving?
There’s more distractions than just using your cell phone, whether you’re putting on makeup, eating, whether you’re a young parent turning to talk to your kid in the car seats in the back, guys looking at pretty girls, whatever it might be. It’s easy to focus on cell phones. If you would send out an email or a group text when you get in your car, tell everybody, “Hey, I’m going to be driving, I’m not going to pick up the phone for any reason for the next half hour. If you leave a message, I’ll call you back.”
You do that, and then you put the phone on airplane mode or turn it off, stick it in the glove compartment so you’re not tempted. That’s a simple thing to do. I’m not saying it’s easy. Even after Casey was killed it was probably a couple years when I was tempted to pick up my phone. So it takes a while because these are habits.
What’s your hope for End Distracted Driving moving forward?
We certainly want to ramp up the presentations. We have presenters all across the country like Jay in Chicago. This year we have a big campaign with the American Association for Justice doing free talks in middle schools, high schools, and colleges around the country. The 2016-17 school year, our goal is to talk to at least 100,000 kids on a 100 percent volunteer basis, which is neat. We’re going to be having a national PSA—and it was just explained to me what a meme is—a national video and meme PSA contest that we’re going to announce later in the fall. We think that’s really important. We want to continue to work on … there’s two parts to this: How are you driving yourself and what do you do when you’re a passenger in a car and someone tries to drive distracted. We’re working a lot on the conversation—how you can have a fruitful, non-confrontational conversation with the driver, how you can fashion that conversation to maximize the effectiveness that they’ll put their phone down, and that maybe, just maybe, they’ll think twice about driving distracted as a result of that action or intervention.