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GM exec’s son died because of distracted driver. Now he’s trying to change laws.

Detroit Free Press
June 26, 2021
Carol Cain

Get ready to hear about “Just Drive” and “100 Deadliest Days” from some celebrities who will join the Kiefer Foundation and its new ad campaign to help raise awareness about distracted driving and inspire new laws in Michigan and other states to help thwart it.

“Just Drive” is the slogan of the campaign launched by the Kiefer Foundation and “100 Deadliest Days” the headline on new ads that will appear on social media and other places, showing graphic photos of actual vehicles involved in fatalities, with messages about distracted driving.

The Kiefer Foundation, based in Plymouth, was born from the heartache of a father who lost a son in an auto accident caused by a distracted driver. He started the foundation to honor his son and educate people about distracted driving.

Nevermind that the dad, Steven Kiefer, is a car guy and serves as president of General Motors International. His day job involves sales and marketing of vehicles in 60 markets across the globe.

Like most of us, he didn’t know much about distracted driving before his son’s death. But the more he learned, the more eye-opening the statistics and his decision to step up and help so others would not have to walk in his shoes.

“Nothing prepares you for that,” he told me as he recounted the tragedy that unfolded on Sept. 19, 2016.

Mitchel Kiefer was driving from his family’s home in metro Detroit back to Michigan State University — where he’d begun studies to become a psychologist, with visions of making a difference in the world — when his car was rear-ended by a 20-year-old distracted driver on I-96 in Ingham County.

The driver of the other vehicle, a college student heading back to Western Michigan University, failed to slow down as traffic came to a standstill due to congestion on I-96, near Dietz Road. She slammed into Mitchel Kiefer’s car going 81 mph, which sent his car sailing across the small grassy median into oncoming traffic, where it was struck by a truck, killing him instantly.

The driver who caused the accident survived, plead guilty to a misdemeanor count of “moving violation causing death,” paid $1,900 in fines, was sentenced to 24 days of community service, and put on probation for two years.

“No one knows what (the other driver) was doing, but it only takes a moment to be distracted while you drive, and it can have such devastating impact,” Steven Kiefer said.

Advocates teaming up

The Detroit Regional Chamber, AAA: The Auto Club Group and others have joined with the Kiefer Foundation and say distracted driving is a crisis that undermines the safety for all of us on the roads, which is why they are working to get distracted driving legislation passed.

State Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, teamed up with Reps. Mike Mueller and Joseph Bellino, two Republicans, as they introduced a package of three bills that would make driving while manually holding your phone illegal.

The bills are working their way through the arduous process in Lansing. It is this type of distracted driving (texting, calling on the handset, streaming video, using social media) that would be a primary offense, so police would no longer need to wait for someone to swerve between lanes or anything to pull them over — similar to how seatbelt laws are enforced.

The effort to get distracted driving legislation adopted was unveiled at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference in 2019, where Kiefer spoke.

“We are optimistic that success can be achieved,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Chamber. “With a little luck, we will be successful in time to celebrate this win for safety in honor of Mitchel Kiefer in time for the 2021 Mackinac Policy Conference (this September).”

Kiefer has told his story hundreds of time as he’s appeared before legislators in Lansing, other states and in Washington, D.C., in an effort to help change laws.

Currently, 24 states have laws prohibiting the use of handheld phones while driving; Kiefer said the foundation was involved in 10 of them. He’s hoping Michigan will join them.

Nearly 40,000 people are killed each year in the U.S. due to car crashes. Approximately 10% of fatal crashes are attributed to distracted driving, a number that some believe is grossly under-reported.

According to 2019 data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, distracted driving crashes resulted in the deaths of 3,142 people — an average of nine people each day. In Michigan, there were 64 fatal crashes, resulting in 71 deaths tied to distracted driving in 2019.

‘Just Drive’

Kiefer is raising the conversation through the foundation’s new “Just Drive” campaign and related ads.

It’s tied to this precarious time of year as the days between Memorial Day weekend and Labor Day are most dangerous.

“Traffic fatalities increase 26% during those 100 days,” Kiefer said.

In coming up with a tagline, he wanted to keep it simple: “Like Nancy Reagan’s ‘Just Say No’ and Nike’s ‘Just Do it,’ ” Kiefer said.

The campaign features 100 pictures of vehicles involved in fatal accidents that a photographer from New York took at a vehicle scrap yard. They are graphic and disturbing.

“The (100 Deadliest Days) boards are meant to look like a movie board — with a key message and statistics provided each day. It’s a story no one wants to live through,” he said.

In recent months, actor Mark Wahlberg and former Red Wings Captain Steve Yzerman— both touched by Kiefer’s campaign — have taken to social media to help support it.

Kiefer will unveil other celebs joining them this week and hopes others, particularly social media influencers who resonate with young drivers who are more at risk, might also step up as well to spread the word.

“It will take all of us working together to keep our roads safe and our families, too,” he added.

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