A purposeful path

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(An article by EPLN)

Eden Prairie bids goodbye to Vijay Dixit, whose tragic loss sparked a mission against distracted driving.

Vijay Dixit and his wife, Rekha, visit the bench dedicated to Shreya’s memory at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum regularly, including on Shreya’s birthday and the anniversary of her death. Photo by Lea Jacobson

On a beautiful spring day, Vijay Dixit sits on a bench at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska. The bench is dedicated to the memory of his daughter, Shreya, who was killed while riding with a distracted driver on Nov. 1, 2007.

“This is where we come when we are sad and missing Shreya,” he said. The bench is also where he and his wife, Rekha, commemorate Shreya’s birthday and the anniversary of her loss every year.

As children play and laugh in the nearby maze and walkers admire the trees bursting with blooms, Dixit reflects on Shreya’s life, his mission since her loss, and his family’s next chapter.

Dixit and Rekha will be moving to New Jersey this month to be nearer their surviving daughter, Nayha, and her family.

After graduating from the Indian Institute of Technology, Dixit came to the United States in 1974 to pursue graduate work in clean technologies and business management. He and his family lived in Connecticut before making Eden Prairie their home in 2000. At the time, Nayha was in college, and Shreya joined eighth grade at the International School of Minnesota. The next year, Shreya attended Benilde-St. Margaret’s, where she eventually graduated.

Of his time here, Dixit said, “I would say my Minnesota story is much more powerful than my pre-Minnesota story. It is a marker on my life journey.”

Dixit has also left his indelible mark on Minnesota as he channeled his grief into a new mission: to end distracted driving.

Tragedy creates a new purpose

Shreya was a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison at the time of the accident. Dixit and Rekha had celebrated Shreya’s 19th birthday with her at school just six weeks earlier. That was the last time they saw her.

Some things about Shreya: She was a singer, a soprano, who sang in the high school choir as early as sixth grade. Her major was international business, and she wanted to use her degree to help others in impoverished countries. She had many friends. Her father affectionately called her “Tultul,” which means butterfly.

Shreya Dixit was killed when riding with a driver who became distracted. She was 19 and a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She was known, among other things, for her infectious joy, her beautiful singing voice, and for being a good friend. Photo courtesy of Vijay Dixit

As Dixit states in his book “One Split Second,” “the healing process would be measured in years.” At the time, the family couldn’t imagine how anything positive could come out of their devastating loss. But with the help of their grief counselor, the Dixit family found a new purpose.

Dixit and his family started the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation to save lives by raising awareness about distracted driving.

He also credits their grief counselor with helping him achieve “post-traumatic growth” by putting his energy into something greater than himself.

Through his foundation work, Dixit has encountered many other families with similar stories “who can’t get out of their depth of mourning. This is very sad and I thank my daughter Shreya for showing me the path.”

The things that help others “are the things that sometimes give you strength and energy,” he said. “That gives me more motivation, more push to do it because I’m not doing it for Vijay Dixit but for those people who cannot do it. I’m not doing it to be acknowledged or recognized but because it is the right thing to do. And if I do it maybe some others will also.”

The Dixit family created the Shreya Dixit Memorial Foundation to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving. Photo by Lea Jacobson

The work of the foundation

After Shreya’s loss and the creation of the foundation, Dixit left his career to focus solely on fighting distracted driving. He has poured his energy into what he calls a necessarily “multi-pronged” attack on distracted driving. 

Here are some of the results of his work:

  • Distraction-Free Life Clubs at Minnesota high schools equip students to influence their peers and advocate for distraction-free driving.
  • Driver education scholarships and paid internship programs raise awareness about distracted driving and educate the community through various projects.
  • A free adaptive Massive Open Online Course educates participants about distracted driving in an engaging and hands-on way.
  • Dixit’s book, “One Split Second,” relates Shreya’s story and shares compelling facts and statistics to convince drivers to drive safely.
  • The Raksha 5K, which has taken place annually since 2009, raises awareness and gives participants an opportunity to pledge to drive distraction-free.
  • With the help of some Eden Prairie High School students, Dixit has been involved in developing AI technology to help combat distracted driving.

The problem with statistics

Dixit’s book, “One Split Second,” shares his daughter Shreya’s story along with others, using facts and statistics to make a case against distracted driving.

One thing that makes fighting distracted driving so difficult is defining what qualifies as distracted driving and how to measure it. 

“There is a lot of confusion, discussion, and disagreement,” Dixit said.

While many people primarily associate distracted driving with phone use, the driver in Shreya’s crash was distracted by reaching for a napkin before swerving off the road. 

Official Minnesota numbers say distracted driving rates are 10 to 15%. Dixit, based on other data, believes the rate could be closer to 70%.

“It is difficult to collect data,” said Dixit. “It is important to know what distracted driving is. I define it as a driver on the road doing something other than driving. It could be looking at scenery, using a phone, even being emotionally upset. The thing that kills is cognitive distraction. How do you measure it?”

Leading the way with new laws

In 2009, Dixit was invited to the first Distracted Driving Summit in Washington, D.C. He soon forged a relationship with Sen. Amy Klobuchar after she mentioned Shreya in her address that day. 

“I am so grateful for her being supportive of the cause,” he said. 

With Klobuchar’s support, he fought for Shreya and 22 other Minnesota families as a key force behind the hands-free bill, which became law in Minnesota in 2019.

Yet sobering statistics prove what a daunting task Dixit continues to face. In 2007, 510 people died on roads in Minnesota, Dixit said. In 2023, there were 444 deaths. 

“This is not an improvement,” he said. “Even after those laws have been implemented in the majority of states in the country, this is what we are seeing.”

In addition, he said, with the introduction of the smartphone in 2007, “the number of distractions has gone up. It is very difficult to measure progress on all of those fronts.”

He added, “The only thing I can say is perhaps if that law was not passed, and if the efforts we made did raise awareness, we perhaps avoided some fatalities that would have occurred.”

Dixit worked to help pass the hands-free bill into law in Minnesota in 2019. Photo by Lea Jacobson

Roots and wings

As he and Rekha prepare to relocate, Dixit reflects on the role Minnesota has played in his life.

“There was something that brought us to Minnesota,” he said. “Yes, it looked like a job, but I don’t think it was a job. There was a higher thing that was pushing us into Minnesota. It was clear there was another mission we had to take on, and that started on Nov. 1, 2007. That made us realize, OK, this is why we are in Minnesota.

“Not that I’m not proud of being an engineer and MBA and all of that, but what makes me not only proud but gives me peace and real happiness is the work I have done after losing Shreya,” he said. 

He continued, “The people and accompanying experiences that came with that grief were much more powerful, much more impactful in my life than the previous 50 or so years … because there is no comparison between what I was before and what I am today. It changed my life.”

As Dixit continues to work tirelessly, the move to New Jersey will allow his mission to grow even more. The foundation will stay in Minnesota, and “all efforts in Minnesota will be replicated in New Jersey, although in the beginning on a smaller scale,” Dixit said. 

From left, seated: Vijay’s grandchildren Bodhi, Sia-Shreya, and Ahana. Standing: Vijay’s son-in-law David, daughter Nayha, Vijay, and his wife, Rekha. Photo courtesy of the Dixit family

Daughter Nayha has already been paving the way by hosting a smaller version of the Raksha 5K with her friends, and they hope to grow it even more in the future.

The foundation will continue offering internships and working with teens and public safety officials. Nayha will also be working with elementary and junior high students in local schools.

“We are focusing on bringing programs to younger students in both Minnesota and New Jersey,” Dixit said.

The Minnesota Raksha 5K Run/Walk & Vigil for Distraction-free Driving will still take place on Aug. 4 at Purgatory Creek Park, where Shreya also has a bench dedicated to her memory near the gazebo. 

“It may be a virtual walk because of the transition,” Dixit said, “but it will still take place.”

Vijay Dixit looks at the small plaque on the memorial bench dedicated to his daughter, Shreya, in Purgatory Creek Park in Eden Prairie. The bench was donated by the family in her memory. The park has been the site of the annual Raksha 5K Run/Walk & Vigil for Distraction-free Driving, organized by the Shreya Foundation for the past 16 years. Photo by Rekha Dixit

Dixit is also planning to write another book to supplement “One Split Second.” 

It will focus more on technology, autonomous vehicles, and the role of AI in fighting distracted driving.

Vijay Dixit with the certificate he received for his years of service at his final meeting on the Eden Prairie Local News (EPLN) board of directors on May 20. Photo by Stuart Sudak

Dixit, who recently stepped down from the Eden Prairie Local News board of directors, hopes to continue writing occasional articles for the website. His final board meeting was on May 20.

He is excited about living just 15 minutes away from Nayha and her family in New Jersey. His three grandkids, ages 8, 5, and 3, are eagerly awaiting the couple’s arrival. 

“They all know what distracted driving is,” he said, “and have attended every walk.”

Will he ever stop or slow down on his mission? “Until my last breath, I will be fighting distracted driving,” he said. 

Meanwhile, he will always keep Minnesota in his heart. “I could write a book about the things I will miss about Eden Prairie,” he said. “Friends, neighbors, colleagues, the Eden Prairie Local News that allowed me to be a journalist and allowed me a platform to write on distracted driving.

“Minnesota is very special,” Dixit continued. “I get goosebumps when I say I am going to leave. Emotionally, I will always be here 100% and will be here physically at least a couple of times a year.”

He added, “And you can always find me here on Shreya’s bench on Nov. 1.”

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