Terre Haute attorney Steve Williams concedes that a lot of people will have to do a lot of things to stop the enormous problem of distracted driving.
Cell phones, text messages, eating and talking to other passengers can take the driver’s attention away from the road and, combined with the speed cars now travel, tragedy can result.
The Indiana Trial Lawyers Association’s College of Fellows joined the effort to stop the problem when it started offering the End Distracted Driving – Student Awareness Campaign in 2012. Members met with teenagers around the state and gave a PowerPoint presentation about the dangers of inattention behind the wheel.
Although the ITLA originally planned to offer the distracted driving project for just one year, the comments and positive reactions from teenagers, teachers and parents have inspired the organization to continue going into high schools for another school year.
“We wanted to help with the problem, and we feel like we are helping,” said Williams, president of the ITLA College of Fellows. “As trial lawyers, we feel like we’re very well prepared to do this kind of thing because we do it every day.”
The ITLA fellows decided to focus on distracted driving after member Neil Comer’s granddaughter was killed while texting and driving. They have partnered with the Casey Feldman Foundation; EndDD, which is sponsored by the foundation; and 60 for Safety to present the campaign to Indiana teenagers.
Williams credits the success of the project to the PowerPoint presentation created by the Casey Feldman Foundation. The foundation was established by Philadelphia attorney Joel Feldman, whose daughter, Casey, was killed by a distracted driver.
The presentation, Williams said, is custom made for trial lawyers used to talking and trying to persuade juries and judges.
Not surprising, trial lawyers say they are dealing with more cases that involve distracted driving. More and more, root causes of auto accidents and collisions are linked to drivers multi-tasking when operating a vehicle.
“It’s a very common element in a lot of different cases nowadays,” Williams said, “because this problem is so prevalent.”
Distracted driving is not limited to cell phone use and texting. According to the 2011 National Phone Survey on Distracted Driving Attitudes and Behaviors, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation, many activities can potentially draw a driver’s attention from the road ahead.
The most common are driving while talking to other passengers, adjusting the car radio, eating and drinking, making or accepting phone calls, interacting with children in the backseat and using a portable music player.
Williams defined distracted driving as “anything that takes the attention away from the primary task of driving.”
Among the key findings of the survey: A majority of respondents (66 percent) stated they typically kept driving when they received calls. Also, many (45 percent) held the phone while driving instead of using a hands-free device.
The activity of texting while driving is higher for those under 25. According to the survey, 44 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds and 49 percent of 21- to 24-year-olds were likely to send texts while behind the wheel. This compares to 26 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds, 29 percent of 35- to 44-year-olds and 8 percent of 45- to 65-year-olds.
As these statistics reflect, young adults can test the limits of behavior or may not consider the consequences their actions can have. Moreover, they are often stereotyped as uninterested in what their elders say.
Richmond attorney David Burton believes taking the time to go into the schools and make the presentation is worth the effort.
“Even though you think teens are going to do what they are going to do, they are still impressionable,” Burton said. “Maybe it’s possible to try to alter their habits.”
He compared the growing current situation of distracted driving with the prevalence of drunken driving 40 years ago. Through the work and public awareness campaigns of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, society’s attitudes changed.
Similarly, he thinks the social and moral consequences of driving distracted will have to be emphasized in order to dramatically change the behavior of teens and adults.
The PowerPoint brings out some of the social and moral aspects by focusing on the ethical obligations teen drivers have, Burton said. Without shaming the teenagers, the presentation highlights that the choices they make while driving could have implications for themselves, their passengers and other drivers on the road.
The program is designed not only to get teenagers to change their behavior, but also to encourage them to talk to their parents, siblings and other relatives about the dangers of distracted driving. The teenagers are encouraged to become leaders and educate their families.
Attorneys have described the 50-minute presentation as “powerful.” It is based on psychological and sociological research to appeal especially to teenagers.
The presentation includes video clips and opportunities for interaction by role playing and asking the students questions. In addition, the Casey Feldman Foundation added a video about Comer’s granddaughter to make the PowerPoint more relevant to Hoosier students.
Bruce Kehoe, partner at Wilson Kehoe & Winingham LLC, noted the presentation is “one of those events you don’t walk away from without being touched.”
From his presentation at Centerville Senior High School, Kehoe remembered a young man in the audience who talked about his father, an emergency room physician, who texts all the time. The student said he was going to go home and tell his dad what he had learned.
Kehoe chose to give a presentation at his alma mater, Centerville.
“I just really enjoyed the experience,” Kehoe said. “I was really so pleased and impressed with the level of attention and engagement they gave.”
Afterward, he received a handwritten thank you note from the school’s principal that mentioned many students came to school the next day sporting the black “End Distracted Driving” wrist bands.
Williams maintains the project is having an impact. Since giving the presentation at Vigo County high schools, Williams said students have stopped him on the street and parents have written him letters, telling him how much the program meant to them. Even the students at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology were enthralled when they saw the PowerPoint.
For the second year, ITLA plans to do more outreach to schools, enabling more students to see the presentation.
“Our obligation is to educate young drivers about the dangers of distracted driving,” Williams said, “so they can make intelligent decisions not to drive distracted.” •