Many parents and their children visited the Dexter LaFontaine Chevrolet service department this weekend for an opportunity to learn more about the topic of distracted driving.
While we’re all susceptible to distractions, particularly of the digital variety that are tied to the smart-phones that we all carry on our persons, young drivers are particularly vulnerable to the siren song of digital communication. Coupled with their inexperience behind the wheel, any distraction is a serious problem let alone an enticing one.
“It’s a very underreported problem,” said Beth Costello, Manager of the Kohl’s Drive Smart Distracted Driving Prevention Program at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital. It’s a significant portion of the nearly 4,000 teen fatalities stemming from auto crashes that are recorded each year, she explained.
Costello, who worked in an ambulance for five years in Iowa before taking her career in a different direction, has seen more than her fair share of crashes involving teens who were distracted by their phone, food, or a passenger. It’s why she created the Kohl’s Drive Smart initiative in tandem with C.S. Mott, the Transportation Research Institute of University of Michigan, and the U of M Injury Center.
A computer simulation complete with widescreen high definition display, steering wheel, gas and break pedals, and a mouse to manipulate the in-game cell phone and other items that pop up within the virtual vehicle cockpit were set up to allow teens to maneuver through a difficult driving environment without real world consequences.
When the distractions became too much and a mistake was made, a popup reported the monetary damages, insurance premium costs, period of license suspension, and any other consequences that would be brought to bear on the driver if the dog or person that they hit were real and they were behind the wheel of their car instead of behind what is essentially a video game controller.
“We’re trying to work with families throughout Michigan and get people to our website where questions like what do you do if you’re driving and faced with hunger are covered,” Costello explained. “Do you pull over and eat quickly? What if you get a ping from your cell phone when you’re driving? Do you answer quickly at the stop light? We’re trying to get people to think about these questions so we can help them arrive at the right answer.”
The Kohl’s Drive Smart website has a range of other bits of information and advice. There’s even the framework for an agreement that parents and their children ages 12 and up can agree to to not only be a good driver, but in the case of the lower end of the age-range, a good passenger.
“It’s not just about the teen driver, but about the other members of the family who are passengers, and even the parents who might be unknowingly encouraging distracted driving in their children,” Costello said. “We hear about plenty of kids who are going to school for a sporting event or somewhere else they’re supposed to be and their parents ask them why they didn’t text them to let them know whether they arrived yet. We’ve heard about parents asking their kids why they didn’t eat something before meeting them somewhere.”
Those and other parental requests of driving-age children could not be fulfilled under the circumstances without the child engaging in distracted driving and putting themselves at risk, which is why parents are as important a part of the equation as anyone else.
LaFontaine Business Coordinator Quaila Pant said that Dexter’s dealership believes in promoting safety for teen drivers in general, which is improved more and more each year with improving vehicle safety measures built into the dealership’s inventory by the automakers.
“This is very important for the families and teens in our area,” Paint said. “We want to not only help them with service for their vehicles and be a part of that, but we also want teens and their families to practice safety, avoid distracted driving, and have good habits behind the wheel like keeping both hands on the wheel and paying attention.”
Ronnie Brown brought her teens — Austin, 19, and Shelby, 15. She looked on as her son and daughter tried to follow the pop-up driving directions simulating a GPS while driving environment obstacles popped up left and right as phone calls and texts kept forcing the virtual cell phone up into view of the windshield.
“My biggest concern are cell phones,” Ronnie said. “Shelby got her license in March. She doesn’t know what it was like before cell phones. Before it might have been our friends in the car as passengers talking with us, but now nobody’s even in the car and there’s somebody to talk to.”
Despite her children swearing that they never get on their cell phones while behind the wheel, Ronnie expressed loving skepticism: “I know both of them do it. I know. I’m not a dumb mom. We all do it.”
Stephanie Schoch brought her children teens Ryan and Shannon, along with two of their friends, hear Costello’s message.
“I wanted my son to come because he’s a new driver and I didn’t want him to text and drive,” Schoch said. “My daughter is a passenger and I don’t want her distracting who she’s being driven by. I want her to get this message in her head now while she’s 13.”
When she heard about the Kohl’s Drive Smart program coming to LaFontaine this weekend, Schoch thought about all of the people she sees behind the wheel texting, talking, or even browsing while their vehicles are in full motion.
“It’s worse than drinking of driving,” Schoch said. “I just want to make sure my kids are aware of that and all of the things that can go wrong when you take your attention off of the road while driving.”
Costello said that awareness of the problem started on the watch of Peter Ehrlich, U of M Professor of Pediatric Surgery at C.S. Mott, who found the number of traumas suffered by minors involved in distracted driving rooted car accidents alarming enough to pursue an initial $300,000 grant to fund an effort to spread that knowledge far and wide.
Kohl’s Cares foundation has since poured $700,000 into the effort led by Costello.
“When I worked on the ambulance it had enough of an impact that I wanted to give back … I’ve seen the sadness that families who get into this situation go through,” Costello said.
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