Not a day goes by without a newspaper or TV story announcing a fatality and/or injury caused by distracted driving. It is heartbreaking to see innocent lives lost due to an action that is easily avoidable. I write this message because I am from a family grieving the loss of our 19 year old daughter Shreya who was fatally injured while riding as a passenger. The driver got distracted causing a crash killing Shreya on the spot. Although that episode occurred four and half years ago, the wound left by the loss is as fresh as it was on November 1, 2007. Our healing has been hampered by a non-ending stream of similar stories hitting us daily.
To illustrate the above point, past Wednesday a New Hampshire teen was sentenced to two-and-a-half years behind bars (one and half years suspended) for causing a fatal crash that killed a 55 year old, father three. The 17-year-old high school student sent 193 text messages the day of the crash, including some just a minute or so before impact and dozens more after it. He was also thinking about his homework when the crash occurred.
In another case, last week a semi-truck driver in Minnesota was convicted to be sentenced in July for setting off a chain-reaction crash that killed two women and an unborn child. He was reaching down to the floor of his truck’s cab to retrieve an energy drink. His eyes were off the road He did not slow his truck and ignored posted warning signs about a lane closure ahead. By the time he looked up, three lives were gone.
Yet another case a celebrity wife in Minnesota was convicted for running over a young man filling up gas on a highway ramp.
Ray LaHood, Secretary of Transportation stated in recent press release: “Distracted driving is an epidemic. While we’ve made progress in the past three years by raising awareness about this risky behavior, the simple fact is people are continuing to be killed and injured – and we can put an end to it.” Many states have been passing strict laws across the nation ordering jail time for distracted driving (talking or texting on a cell phone while behind the wheel).
Let me expand the focus beyond cell phones and draw attention to the broader issue that underpins unsafe driving. Research has shown that a majority, if not all vehicular crashes occur because of a driver action taken just 3 seconds before the impact. The root cause, therefore, is some form of driver distraction that may not be attributable to cell phone use at all, like the trucker’s example above. Unless we take a system wide approach to eliminate the root cause, the problem will not go away. Today the culprit is believed to be the cell phone; in five years it could be something entirely different.
Driver distractions originate from multiple sources that reside both inside and outside of the car. These distractions cannot be managed through a single solution or tool. We need a multipronged approach to influence how we drive. I see the evolution of this approach already taking place on three fronts, namely: Technology, Legislation and Education. A recently released cell phone application DriveScribe leverages technology to influence driver behavior. Various initiatives at the state and federal levels have driven legislative actions to propose and enact laws against distracted driving. But these measures have a punitive character. I propose a broader grass roots level community driven path of education and awareness training. Exclusive reliance on the ever changing technologies and legislative initiatives are not only time consuming, but they can be expensive with limited shelf life for influencing driver behavior. They also do not span the whole spectrum of driver demographics. On the other hand, education inculcates lifelong and disciplined driving behavior, costs less and is easier to implement with short turnaround times. We must engage and educate our future drivers very early in their formative years and by leveraging peer-to-peer networks. Initiate elementary school level good driver behavior education programs. These kids may even keep tabs on the elder drivers who claim ownership to a driver a license but are too distracted to drive with discipline.
In the past four years since its inception, Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation has been raising awareness about distracted driving and educating young, very young and adult audiences at teen panels, driver- education programs and through participation in state and national initiatives. I invite those who have lost loved ones to distracted driving to join in this crusade for building a distraction-free driver community, one driver at a time.
Vijay B. Dixit, Chairman
Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation and Member, Teen Driver Safety Coalition: Minnesota Safety Council
501(c)-3 Non-Profit Organization