The Unimaginable Grief of Distracted Driving Deaths

How road safety advocates are tackling a public health problem head on.

When Emily Stein was learning how to drive in Massachusetts in the late 1990s, her father always made sure she was safe. They had a full checklist before they put the car into drive. Cell phones were strictly prohibited. One day in 2011, Stein’s father, a carpenter, had pulled over to the side of the road to secure a load in the back of a truck. The car that hit him veered at the wrong time. “It was just a matter of seconds,” Stein says. “My dad was so safe in everything he did.” But the driver that killed him was distracted while programming her GPS. 

“It is,” Stein says, “a painful irony.”

Those seconds forever altered the course of Stein’s life. A registered nurse, Stein was just finishing up a master’s in public health. She quickly changed her concentration to focus on road safety; her eyes had opened to a massive public health crisis.

“I did a big U-Turn,” she says. “I realized that this is an epidemic.”

Road-safety advocates like Stein equate their calling to waking up from a dream. Suddenly, they see a matrix of traffic deaths everywhere. It becomes their life’s mission to prevent them. While dealing with unimaginable grief, they encounter endless bureaucratic torpor, corporate prevarication, and public indifference. Change can be slow, often nonexistent. Yet advocates are persistent.

Jennifer Smith, a Texas real-estate agent, lost her mother to a distracted driver in Oklahoma in 2008. “I didn’t understand why she was gone, but I knew I had to do something,” she says. “I started reaching out to other people like me, and was blown away by how often this was happening.”  

Smith, now living in Oak Park, Illinois, founded stopdistractions.org, a kind of clearinghouse for families trying to deal with their own tragedies. In 2009, The New York Times featured her mother’s story as the first in a series of features on distracted driving. She met with Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and began a serious campaign to establish distracted-driving laws nationwide. She proceeded with full moral urgency.

"No one understands that this changes you in a split second,” Smith says. “We don’t want this to happen to anyone else. It’s not going to save our loved ones. They’re gone already. We just don’t want anyone to experience what we have.”

After a terrifying truck crash killed two of her seven children, Marianne Karth of North Carolina undertook a dogged campaign to improve federal guidelines for truck underride guards, and to get major manufacturers to conform. She met with current Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and North Carolina Senator Richard Burr, filed multiple petitions, waged a passionate campaign on Twitter, and sat in on endless roundtables and meetings. Karth says she was prepared for the realities of activism because she was a VISTA volunteer in Michigan in the 1970s and organized a non-profit for homeless families in Midland, Texas, in 2009. Road safety had never crossed her mind.

“You hear about speeding and airbags, the whole Corvair problem, Ralph Nader and all that,” she says. “But it was remote.”

It always is, advocates say, until it happens to you. Joel Feldman’s tragic revelation came in July of 2009, when a distracted driver killed 21-year-old daughter, Casey. “Before she was killed I drove distracted all the time,” he says. “It made me think about my own driving behaviors.” Feldman, a Philadelphia attorney, enrolled at Villanova to get a master’s in counseling, and has since devoted most of his time to an organization that he founded, EndDD.org, that has 500 volunteers who have spoken to nearly 100,000 schoolchildren about the dangers of distracted driving. His daughter’s death, he says, “was a hell of a motivator.”

The most committed road-safety advocates are slowly starting to converge. Karth is a member of the Truck Safety Coalition, a citizen’s group doing its best to reform the trucking industry. The National Safety Council has the Survivor Advocate Network, which mixes distracted-driving prevention activists with advocates to end opiod addiction.  Yet even though support exists, the work itself can be lonely.

Emily Stein has taken over the Safe Roads Alliance, a Massachusetts nonprofit. Stein’s working with Joel Feldman and is hooked into a nationwide Vision Zero network of cities that are trying to reduce traffic fatalities. But at the moment, the Safe Roads Alliance is an alliance of one. “Our capacity to grow is limited because it’s just me right now,” she says. “This road safety work is tricky. It’s not glamorous. You’re dealing with the psychology of behavior change. It either doesn’t happen or it’s really slow to happen.”

If anything, road-safety activism is harder than ever. When Jennifer Smith first started working on the problem, she began to see a reduction in traffic fatalities. But as smartphones became more prevalent and distractions became ever more distracting, she began to grow despondent.

“I believe that my mom sacrificed her life to save others,” she says. “But it keeps happening, it’s getting worse. My pile of crash reports just keeps growing. Some days, I’m dealing with 15 new crashes.”

But, Smith tells activists, you have keep on pushing, because indifference will lead to an even greater crisis: “You are doing this in honor of your lost loved one, and no one can take that from you.” No matter how dire the situation may seem, she says, you have to always assume that you’re going to eventually win. You are on the side of good.

In December, Marianne Karth went to Washington, D.C., for the first-ever meeting of the Road To Zero Coalition, a project that the National Safety Council launched with the Department Of Transportation. They talked about setting up the office of national traffic-safety ombudsman, and also a national network of advocacy groups. Even with the new administration coming in, Karth thinks that effort will continue. Traffic deaths don’t discriminate by political party or ideology. And, unfortunately, new advocates are being created every day.

“I just take it one step at a time as things unfold,” Karth says. “As I said to my husband this morning, I wonder what the days and weeks and months ahead hold for us. Because it’s taken over our lives.”