In 2019, more than 3,000 people died in motor vehicle accidents caused by distracted driving. Whether you drive for work or personal reasons, the consequences of being distracted behind the wheel can be life-altering.
On this episode of the WorkSAFE Podcast, we are joined by Joel Feldman, founder of the organization End Distracted Driving. He is a practicing attorney with more than 35 years of experience. Feldman represents those injured by distracted driving, and family members of those who have been killed. In addition, he uses his Masters degree in counseling to teach others about the dangers of taking your eyes off the road.
First, Feldman will share why distracted driving is a cause close to his heart. Then, we’ll discuss why it’s important to change not just attitudes, but behaviors. Finally, we’ll share seven actions that make a difference behind the wheel.
Listen to this episode on the WorkSAFE Podcast, or read the show notes below.
Distracted driving: A danger close to heart and home
For Feldman, the passion for safe driving began close to heart and home. He was familiar with the consequences of distracted driving; as an attorney, probably more than most. Every day, he would argue for clients in the courtroom. But he was also guilty of taking his eyes off the road. “I also would drive distracted,” he admits. “Distracted driving to me, if we look at it, it’s really a story of hypocrisy. ‘Hey, it’s okay if I do it, but I get really annoyed if I see somebody in the car next to me doing it’.”
Then, in July 2009, his 21 year-old daughter Casey was hit by a distracted driver. She was a pedestrian; the 58 year-old man behind the wheel was reaching for his GPS. He rolled through a stop sign, claiming that he never saw Casey. Hours later, she died in surgery at the hospital.
“I did change the way I drive after that,” Feldman continued. “I realized that I needed to do more; I wanted to remember Casey.” He began speaking about the dangers of distracted driving: to kids in school, to businesses, to anyone who was willing to listen. He couldn’t bring Casey back. But he could try to keep others safe.
Changing not just attitudes, but behaviors
Most distracted drivers share a common attitude: they know it’s wrong, but they do it anyway. The same can be said for drivers who skip seat belts, drive while intoxicated or under the influence of drugs. This is a big problem, especially when these drivers are on the job. If they know their behavior is wrong, then how can employers get them to change?
Rather than confront people about bad behavior, Feldman takes a different approach. It’s influenced not just by Casey’s story, but by his experience and techniques he’s gained.
It’s easy to be upset at the sight of distracted driving. After all, those drivers are putting others’ lives at risk. But what happens when we’re the distracted driver? Feldman finds that people offer a number of excuses – they’re a great driver, or haven’t ever been in a crash. Maybe that call or text was important. If everybody does it, how bad could it be?
“The man who killed my daughter was reported to say ‘I only looked away for a few seconds’,” Feldman shared. His words reveal a dark reality behind excuses. “Each and every one of those excuses – it is attached to thousands and thousands and thousands of deaths.” He finds that over the past ten years, nearly 3,000 people have been killed by way of distracted driving, and nearly 400,000 have been injured.
Point out the difference between words and actions
Feldman doesn’t just talk to teens. He also talks to their parents. Parents are often the most guilty of multi-tasking behind the wheel. They often have an important realization during his sessions. They don’t want their teens to drive distracted, but they do it themselves all the time. “That’s a moment where you’ve confronted them,” Feldman described. “‘Hey, I am a person who cares about my kids. They’re the most important people in the world to me’, with the reality of ‘Hey, what am I doing?’”
“Psychologists call that cognitive dissonance,” he continued, “Where we realize that maybe our words and our actions are not congruent, and we need to change.” There are few things worse than knowing the victim of a distracted driving incident; one is being the cause of it.
Talk about the consequences
Most drivers worry more about hurting someone else than hurting themselves. Feldman encounters people involved distracted driving incidents in his work; both in the courts and at presentations. For them, the worst part is never the jail sentences, suspended licenses or community service. It’s knowing they’ve changed the life of someone – or their family – negatively. They’ve made a choice they can’t take back.
“For those of you who are listening and saying ‘Well, those people are probably bad drivers’ and that kind of thing – not a single one of those folks had ever been in a crash,” he shared. “None of them had a criminal record before that day. That could be all of us. That could be each and every one of us.”
Behind the wheel: 7 actions that make the difference at work and home
Today, distracted driving rises above other rival risks: drunk driving, aggressive driving, even drugged driving. “Eighty-eight percent of us, recent studies show, say that our biggest safety concern is other distracted drivers,” Feldman shared. “Yet if you poll those people, 50 percent of them drive distracted. So, you know, what’s that about? I mean, we’re scared of it, but we do it again.” How then can employers – and the everyday driver – make a change?
- Enforce driving policies. Driving policies address risks behind the wheel. Employees who sign them agree to safe behaviors. For example, wearing a seat belt or not using their smartphone.
- Use your phone’s features. Most smartphones include settings to help drivers stay safe behind the wheel. For example, silent buttons, airplane or do not disturb modes. These are free, simple and effective.
- Listen rather than watch. Many people use GPS apps or car systems to navigate. It’s better to use the audio settings than trying to watch the map. Even if a mistake is made, the GPS will re-route.
- Set special ringtones. Some employees worry about missing urgent calls or messages on the job. Using a special ringtone or notification sound can reduce this. Employees know when a message is work-related, and to pull off the roadway to answer it.
- Create a custom response. Many phones allow users to decline calls and auto-reply to text messages while driving. Not only does this show a commitment to safe driving, but it keeps drivers focused.
- Use voice control. Infotainment systems in cars require drivers to use touchscreens. Wherever possible, set up voice control to avoid needing to touch screens.
- Save snacking for later. Eating between destinations is a common behavior. But waiting until the car is parked in a safe location is the safer way to snack.
Leaders aren’t an exception
Company leaders aren’t excluded from these actions, either. Feldman points to one example of a Pennsylvania-based business that invited him to speak. Employees needed the training. But the CEO was too embarrassed. He regularly conducted business over the phone. “Leaders need to lead,” Feldman stated. “And you can’t be, pulling into the parking lot of your businesses, employees seeing you on the phone. You need to lead by example.”
Challenge yourself to make a change
Casey’s story is one that continues to have an impact over time. Her father is committed to telling it. “I have some optimism that we can change this,” Feldman finished. “That we can change the way people think about distracted driving.” While roads can be unpredictable, distracted driving is a risk that isn’t. Choosing to focus on the road is choosing to be a responsible driver. To protect the ones you love and the ones on the road unknown to you.
For free safety posters, sample policies, and safety toolkits, visit our Resource Library. Then, tune in this WorkSAFE Podcast episode for stories from the road from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.