According to a 2015 estimate by the Center for Disease Control, that’s how many Americans die every day as a result of distracted driving. Another 1,000 are injured in crashes involving a distracted driver.
That number, for a growing coalition of organizations around Eden Prairie and beyond, is unacceptably high.
This week, Aug. 1-5, marks one of several efforts on the part of the Distraction-Free Driving Club at Eden Prairie High School to make the streets of Eden Prairie safer.
Amy Wang, a member of the club who will be a senior at EPHS in the fall, described the efforts of club members and allies to start conversations about distracted driving throughout the city.
The effort centers around large, shiny gold balloons in the shape of the number nine.
“We’ll be bringing the balloons to the major parts of Eden Prairie, and hopefully a huge balloon will start up some conversation about the issue,” said Wang.
Wang joined the club shortly after completing a DECA project on the same topic in her sophomore year. The club coordinates with the Shreya Dixit Foundation, and the week of discussion initiation will end with the 10th annual Raksha Run/Walk 5K, an event with the same aim.
Vijay Dixit is the chairman of the foundation and the father of a teenager, Shreya, who was killed in a distracted driving accident nearly 10 years ago. He spoke to the purpose of the week’s events.
“The purpose is just to embed that message of distracted driving, in the hearts and minds of everybody,” said Dixit. “It doesn’t have to be teenagers – Shreya was a teenager, she was killed by a teenager, so my focus has been on teenagers – but that does not mean that adults don’t have any responsibility. I’m connecting more with teenagers because they are the future drivers of our country.”
Wang noted that the aim of the Distraction-Free Driving Club at EPHS was often focused on influencing their peers.
“We focus mainly on the school,” said Wang. “We partner with the Shreya Dixit Foundation, but we feel like we’d be able to make more of an impact among our peers. Hearing this message from your friends, it’ll resonate more.”
The local efforts have received support from forces inside and outside Eden Prairie. Red’s Savoy Pizza offered to display one of the balloons in the window for the week and donated a basket of pizza-related goodies for the 5k itself.
Sharon Gehrman-Driscoll, director of Minnesotans for Safe Driving, described the ongoing efforts as more than simply the pursuit of public safety. Having worked to fight for stricter drunk driving laws decades ago, she described the battle against distracted driving as a similar cultural shift.
“I really believe it’s a big culture change,” said Gehrman-Driscoll. “It was trying to beat something into somebody’s head: ‘You can have wine at home, or a drink, we just don’t want you going out on the road.’ Distracted driving is telling someone: ‘Don’t do anything else but drive.’”
Dixit agreed that changing the culture was the aim. “The primary purpose is to make sure the culture of driving changes,” said Dixit. “All of the drivers are driving with the same behavior they had in the 60s and 70s, whereas communications technologies that are now in place are in the 25th century. That’s an exaggeration, but there is a gap between the drivers and the technology that they can handle.”
That gap, said Gehrman-Driscoll, can be catastrophic.
“The few that have gone to jail, they’ll say that’s the easy part,” said Gehrman-Driscoll. “But remembering somebody, every day of your life, that you’ve taken their life away — it’s very difficult.”
She noted, however, that she did think the tide was shifting with regard to distracted driving.
“Oh, sure it is [changing],” said Gehrman-Driscoll. “But we’ve got a tremendous way to go.”
The run/walk this Saturday will do more than raise awareness. Each participant will receive a “cell slip,” a small envelope in which drivers can place their phone that blocks transmission and ensures the ride will be distraction-free.
Going forward, the EPHS club has a few plans in the mix to continue the fight. Wang and another club member will be speaking about their experiences this week at a Toward Zero Death conference in Minneapolis later this year.
“It will be a really good opportunity to share our experience with this,” said Wang. “But we’re doing some stuff during the school year, too.”
She noted that the club’s membership was always growing, and expressed optimism that, with more members, they could spread the word wider. Wang also said that another distraction-free-driving-related DECA project was in the works.
“That will give us a chance to really do something big in our school, hopefully,” said Wang.