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Kiefer Foundation works to end distracted driving

The Kiefer Foundation

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines distracted driving as any activity that diverts attention from driving, including talking or texting on your phone, eating and drinking, talking to people in your vehicle and fiddling with the stereo, entertainment or navigation system. Anything that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.

Texting is the most alarming distraction. Sending or reading a text takes your eyes off the road for five seconds. At 55 miles per hour, that's like driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed. You cannot drive safely unless the task of driving has your full attention. Any non-driving activity you engage in is a potential distraction and increases your risk of crashing.

Credit The Kiefer Foundation
The Kiefer Foundation

Using a cell phone while driving creates enormous potential for deaths and injuries on U.S. roads. In 2018 alone, more than 2,800 people were killed in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers.

On September 19th, 2016, MSU freshmen Mitchel Kiefer was tragically killed in an auto accident caused by a distracted driver on I-96 on Mitchel's way to the MSU campus. Steve Kiefer is Mitchel's father. Steve earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from Michigan State University, and he is a member of the Michigan State University College of Engineering Alumni Association Advisory Board. He's GM's key executive at Michigan State University and is a member of GM's senior leadership team. He is senior vice president and president of General Motors, South America and International Operations, meaning he's responsible for GM operations outside of North America and China.

Soon after Mitchel's death, Steve founded The Kiefer Foundation to honor Mitchel's legacy. The mission of The Kiefer Foundation is to end distracted driving and all associated traffic deaths and injuries. The foundation focuses on three pillars to support its mission, awareness, technology and policy. Within each of these pillars are specific goals they hope to achieve and initiatives in which they hope to get involved. They've already made some progress, but still have a long way to go.

“Until something like this happens to you personally, I don't think people really understand the magnitude of this problem,” Kiefer says. “It's important for people to realize that, around the world, because this is a global problem, 1.25 million people are killed on the highways of the world every year. It's a huge number. Some 50 million are injured or disabled every year in car crashes and pedestrian related car crashes around the world. We lose somewhere between 35,000 and 40,000 people on the highways of the United States each year. It's a staggering number.

Credit The Kiefer Foundation

“The folks who do the analysis on distracted driving estimate that about 10 percent of those are due to distracted driving. We honestly believe that number is way under reported. As a matter of fact, the stats would generally say that 94 percent of crashes that occur on the highways are due to some type of human error. It could be speeding or drinking and driving or drowsiness, but we know a large percentage of those are distracted driving. The simple statistic that I think is most staggering is that, in this country, 10 people every day are killed by distracted driving. And it's just, again, until you go through it, it's just hard for me to imagine that today and tomorrow and the next day, every day, we're going to have another 10 people, another 10 families going through what my family has gone through. And it really is one of the prime motivators for us to get something done here and really bring an end to distracted driving.

“The story never gets easier to tell, but as you said, it was September 19th of 2016 - the worst day of our lives. Mitchel was in his first month at MSU. He had come home for a nice weekend to go see a Lions game. He was driving up to MSU on I-96 early Monday morning about 7:50. It was a beautiful Monday morning, the sun was out, the roads were dry, and there was no reason for a crash to occur. There was a little bit of traffic congestion. The traffic slowed down, and Mitchel slowed down. The young lady behind him did not. She impacted Mitchel's car at about 82 miles an hour.

“As most people probably know, when airbags deploy, there's a flight recording function inside modern automobiles. You get the forensics from the vehicle. It was clear that the car was going 82 miles an hour, but also that, at the time of impact, the driver's foot was on the throttle, not on the brake. That's a pretty clear indication that the young lady was not paying attention and never touched the brakes. That resulted in Mitchel being rear-ended and driven across a very narrow median on I-96 near Dietz Road, a narrow median that had no guardrails at the time. Mitchel was driven into oncoming traffic where he was hit by a large truck and killed instantly.

“It's a horrific thing to think that one small act of lack of paying attention, of distraction, can just really destroy lives forever.”

The Kiefer Foundation focuses on three pillars to support its mission, awareness, technology and policy.

“First and foremost, we learned how large this problem is, and interestingly enough, we referred to it as a global pandemic several years ago before the more recent pandemic,” Kiefer continues. “And I really believe that it is a global pandemic. This is certainly, as I covered in the earlier stats, causing deaths and disabling injuries all over the world. So we felt, first and foremost, it was important to make as many people realize this as possible. You do find that there are families like ours all over the country that have a similar goal. We do things like advertising, billboards, and a number of community events to help raise awareness. We engaged with a nonprofit organization in Grand Rapids, Michigan called the PEERS Foundation, which brings simulators into schools and churches around the state and around the country to educate young people on the dangers of distracted driving.

“We're able to put them in a car and let them drive in a simulated fashion and then distract them and show how it causes crashes. We also had the opportunity to do some things to memorialize Mitchel and to create awareness. “Mitchel was a hockey player. He went to Detroit Catholic Central. He was part of the 2016 State Championship Catholic Central Hockey Team. And he was a goalie. They won that state championship at a USA Hockey rink in Plymouth, Michigan. We worked with the USA Hockey Foundation and actually dedicated that rink in Mitchel's honor. So that ice rink is now known as the Mitchel Kiefer Memorial Ice Rink, which really feels good from the perspective of a father to memorialize your son.

Credit autonews.com
Steven Kiefer

“More importantly, we didn't just put Mitchel's name on the rink. It's covered with distracted driving messages. There's a locker room that has a video that runs with distracted driver statistics and other messages. There are 500,000 people who visit that ice rink each year for various activities, whether it's hockey games, ice skating competitions, or figure skating competitions. And I can't tell you how many people contact me and say, ‘Mr. Kiefer, we're in your son's ice rink right now. And it's given me an opportunity to talk to my children and my family about these dangers and your message is having a huge impact in this ice rink alone.’ There are several other examples I could give, but that's probably the one that's kind of closest to my heart because every time I visit that ice rink, it's such fond memories of Mitchel and the state championship, but also a really effective way to spread a message of driver safety.

“There are many aspects to the technology pillar. In some cases, it's related to awareness and educating people that you need to be more cautious when driving. There are a number of technology tools that people can be using right now. One is using the safe driving mode and do not disturb mode on your Apple phones and your Android phones. Those tools work very well if you can just get everyone that you know and your families and friends to use those tools. Essentially, they disable the phone from receiving texts or calls when you're driving.

“There are a number of newer technologies that are being developed, driver monitoring tools by some vendors that are watching the driver as they drive and recording these things. They hopefully alert drivers when their eyes are not on the road for a short period. These technologies are being developed. There are other technologies related to blocking the use of phones like phone bags that, if the phone is in the bag, it can't receive a signal.

“And then maybe the final one that we're really quite proud of and it's a little bit of a stretch on the technology theme, is the concept of these cable guardrails. I described in my opening comments about the circumstances of Mitchel's crash. Had there been a guardrail on that narrow median on I-96, it would have stopped Mitchel's car from going into oncoming traffic and he probably wouldn't have even been injured at all. We worked with the Michigan Department of Transportation on these very simple cable guardrails that you see all over the state. We actually did a co-funding project half sponsored by the Kiefer Foundation and half sponsored by MDOT to put in about five miles of cable guardrails at the point where Mitchel's crash occurred.

“Now, when we did that, we really thought it was kind of a ceremonial thing. I just wanted that exact point on the highway to be safe. I couldn't imagine, but within the first year, that guardrail was hit 12 times. Simple technology like these cable guardrails is really quite inexpensive and cost-effective, and we know this one saved 12 lives in that short period of time. You continue to see it all over the state where you see these cable guardrails that have been damaged or knocked down. They are effective and they are saving lives.”

Kiefer is focusing most of his time and attention on the policy pillar.

“While awareness and technology are important, we also realize that legislation and policy can be an extremely important piece of this. Reflect back on the progress that's been made, I would say in my lifetime, since the 1980s and '90s, on drunk driving in those decades. It was a huge problem. We saw a group of very motivated and very influential people called Mothers Against Drunk Driving get very active in the legislative front and in the courts.

Credit The Kiefer Foundation

“They first made sure that there were very stiff drunk driving laws in place. Second, they sat in the courtrooms and made sure that anybody who was guilty of these things received very severe punishment. And when I was young, that seemed like a crazy group of people. And a lot of us didn't understand it, until you lose a child, then you realize exactly why they were doing what they're doing. If you look over the years now, the drunk driving occurrences have completely changed, and I would even say culturally. If you think about the younger generation right now, I know my kids would never even consider getting behind a wheel after drinking. They equate it to holding up a bank or something. You wouldn't do something like that. So behavior has changed completely. And there are now services available like Uber and Lyft, which have also really helped bring down the need for anyone to be driving under the influence.

“If I fast forward to the laws that we're working on now it's about hands-free legislation. And really it basically says that if you're in a vehicle and you're holding the phone for any reason, it becomes a primary offense. Law enforcement can see it, and they can pull you over and you receive a severe ticket. By the way, this is not unusual. This is what most developed countries do around the world. I've spent many years living in Europe. In Europe, if you hold your phone in the car, it's instantly a 400 or 500 Euro penalty. So it's not a new or unusual practice, but we're trying to get these hands free laws implemented in every state in the country.

Credit The Kiefer Foundation

“We really believe that if the laws are in place and then the awareness and enforcement are in place, and this is really important, that we have a tool that law enforcement can use. Because right now, laws that ban texting still allow people to hold the phone in the car. And it's just impossible for law enforcement to determine what a person is doing on their phone to distinguish between texting and phone usage. We believe that the hands-free laws will give law enforcement a tool that will basically be able to change behavior. And then through enforcement and education, we're optimistic that we can bring down the traffic crashes significantly. And I would just say that the data supports this effort. Every state that has implemented these laws has seen significant reductions in crashes and deaths as a result of these hands-free laws.

“We're in the process of re-energizing a campaign that we refer to as Hands-Free Michigan. We first introduced this a couple of years ago, and we agreed to take a bit of a pause during the latest pandemic last year, but it's time now to get re-energized on this. There are now 25 states that have these hands-free laws in place. Unfortunately, we haven't been able to get the law passed here in Michigan. There's a bill that's being developed and sponsored in the House right now in Michigan. Our hope and expectation is to get as many people on board as possible to support this bill and to support the passing of a law. We have a goal here to basically get the bill brought forward and through the State Legislature and passed into law by September of this year.”

Kiefer shares his wisdom on the state and future of the automotive industry, and, in particular, General Motors.

“I couldn't be more excited than I am today as to where we're headed as an industry and where we're headed as General Motors.

Credit The Kiefer Foundation

“We have a vision at GM of a future of zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion. On this concept of zero crashes, as we get to autonomous driving, and we will, we're convinced that this will essentially eliminate all traffic crashes related to human error. We're optimistic about that, but unfortunately, that's many years in the future. In the meantime, I personally believe that ending distracted driving and keeping drivers’ eyes on the road and hands on the wheel is probably the best thing we can do to reduce crashes in the short term.

“On zero emissions, we believe in an all-electric future and plan to roll out a whole portfolio of new battery electric vehicles.

“Electrification has many forms, but in its broadest sense, it's the idea of moving from propulsion systems that are based on internal combustion engines like gasoline and diesel engines into propulsion systems that are driven by electric motors and electricity. I say it that way because I think even fuel cells, hydrogen fuel cells, which are in our future as well, are another way to produce electricity for an electric vehicle. We're focused on this all-electric future, which is really about battery electric vehicles, and you'll start to see more and more of them roll out.”

Challenges and opportunities for GM to reach these mobility goals?

“The sky's the limit here. Technology always comes with challenges and risk, but I think one challenge is ensuring a pipeline of extremely bright, intelligent, motivated people for these jobs. I'm excited in my role participating with the MSU College of Engineering to help define some of those needs so that we get some of the best new engineers coming into our company. I think our story at General Motors right now is absolutely fantastic. And I think it's really helping us because I can't tell you how many people want to join the cause, want to join General Motors, whether it's young engineering students or even seasoned industry veterans. A lot of people are looking to General Motors and wanting to be part of the future success story.

General Motors

“The human capital and getting the right people in is always important and a challenge, but I think we're well positioned. The other thing is, there's a whole area of legislative and infrastructure challenges involved in getting electrical charging in place in countries all over the world. And then as you move to the idea of removing the driver from the car in these truly autonomous vehicles, safety is the absolute highest priority. There are some pretty cautious and time-consuming legislative hurdles that need to be overcome.”

Kiefer talks about why MSU was the right university for him coming out of high school and more about his role on the MSU College of Engineering Alumni Association Advisory Board.

What does he want listeners to keep in mind and take away from our conversation?

“First, really think about the idea of what would it feel like if this happened to you? It's really hard to get people's attention and involvement until they personalize it. So, I just ask everyone to think about what you can do differently? What would you do to protect your life and your children's lives and your family if you thought that something you could do differently today might save them tomorrow from a distracted driving related accident? That's a hard thing to imagine, but I'd ask people to recognize that we never in our lives imagined something like this could happen to us. And then one day your life is shattered.

“It's about personal accountability. This is a behavioral change and every one of us has to participate. I'm slightly embarrassed to admit how actively distracted I used to drive before this happened to me. I was somebody who could drive really well with my knee on the wheel while looking at the phone in one hand and maybe drinking a coffee in another. And I thought I was very cautious about it because I knew the risks. But I still admit that I did it. And then it happens to you and you realize just how senseless that is. From a personal accountability standpoint, if people could just really internalize that and say, ‘I don't need to be on this phone while I'm driving.’ It is just way too dangerous. And it's just not worth the loss of your life or your child's life or the other people on the road.

“Use tools like the do not disturb mode and the safe drive mode that are readily available. Commit to them, use them, keep your eyes on the road, drive safely, and make sure your children and all your friends are doing the same. That's the easy first step. If everybody could just do that, we'd be in a better place.

“And then in a broader sense, for anyone who's willing to help us with the cause of Hands-Free Michigan, be very vocal on your support for getting laws in place that will help make our roads safer. Speak to your elected officials. Be vocal on this because it does have an impact. We're seeing overwhelming support for these hands-free laws. There is just no reason why we shouldn't be able to push them over the edge and get these things implemented this year.”

Please find more again at mkiefer.org or Google the Kiefer Foundation.

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