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Opinion: Lawmakers must fight distracted driving that killed my son

The Detroit News
Aug. 11, 2021
Steven Kiefer, The Kiefer Foundation

Five summers ago, my son Mitchel set a sales record selling Cutco knives, and delivered an award acceptance speech that belied his 18 years on earth. “Dream colossal,” he told the audience. “Change someone’s life. Change the world.”

His words are now his epitaph, literally carved into his tombstone. Just two months after that speech, Mitchel died in a car crash caused by a distracted driver.

On Sept. 19, 2016, Mitchel was driving back to Michigan State University to continue his freshman year after spending a weekend at home to see a Detroit Lions game. The sun was out, the roads were dry, but there was a bit of congestion.

As Mitchel slowed for traffic, the driver of a car behind him apparently wasn’t paying attention and plowed into the rear of Mitchel’s car at 82 mph, vaulting him across a narrow median on Interstate 96 and into oncoming traffic. He was hit by a truck and killed instantly.

One moment of distraction ended Mitchel’s life and forever shattered our hearts. A month later, my family created the Kiefer Foundation to fight distracted driving through awareness, technology, and public policy.

With the five-year anniversary of Mitchel’s death approaching, we are imploring Michigan lawmakers to join 24 other states and Washington, D.C., to crack down on distracted drivers. Specifically, the state Legislature should pass the bipartisan bills before them now to make hand-held cellphone usage a primary offense. It would allow police to stop and ticket people who engage in this dangerous behavior — before they cause a wreck.

People tell me to be patient — wait until next year, they say, or for the next Legislature, when perhaps the logjam in Lansing will lift. But every day we wait is 10 more deaths — approximately the number of people who die daily due to distracted driving in the United States. In Michigan, there were 64 fatal crashes tied to distracted driving in 2019, resulting in 71 deaths. Experts believe these numbers grossly underestimate the toll of distracted driving.

Every Michigan resident has the right to drive safely on our roads. Every parent deserves the comfort of knowing that our state leaders will do everything possible to persuade people to drive without distraction and to punish those who don’t.

One of the House co-sponsors of the distracted driving legislation is former sheriff’s deputy Mike Mueller, a Republican from Linden.

“With today’s vehicle and cellular communication advancements, this is common-sense legislation that will help ensure the safety of drivers in the state of Michigan,” Mueller said.

Five Septembers ago, Mitchel was a hockey goaltender, a gifted salesman, a thriving student, and an extraordinary son and brother with unlimited potential. I was driving on I-696 in Detroit on that September afternoon when my cellphone rang. It was my daughter Julianna, yelling and crying so frantically that I couldn’t understand a word.

As she was a 16-year-old new driver, I was certain she had been in an accident and tried to calm her down.

“Take a breath, Jewels,” I said, calling Julianna by her nickname. “Tell me what happened.”

“It’s Mitchel,” she wailed. “It’s Mitchel.”

What? That didn’t make sense to me. Mitchel wasn’t home. He was on his way back to MSU. Julianna was at home with her mom. Why would Jewels be calling about Mitchel?

As I tried to process what Julianna was saying, I heard his mother’s muffled voice. “He died,” she said. Jewels screamed, then our phones disconnected and would not reconnect.

I gripped the steering wheel so hard my knuckles whitened, praying all the way home that there had been a mistake. Maybe the police misidentified Mitchel’s car. Maybe somebody else was driving it. Perhaps it was somebody else’s child.

But when I arrived home, a police officer confirmed the most devastating news of my life: Mitchel was gone. I collapsed on the family room floor.

So now, in the memory of Mitchel and the tens of thousands of victims like him, I am begging Michigan lawmakers to fight the epidemic of distracted driving. Dream colossal. Change someone’s life. Change the world.

Steve Kiefer is the founder of The Kiefer Foundation and president of General Motors International.

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