Parents of 13-Year-Old Killed in Car Crash Share Powerful Message About Distracted Driving

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Jason and Kristin Talsma, whose 13-year-old son died in a crash caused by a distracted driver, are hoping others will learn from their tragedy. (Photo: WZZM)

The parents of a 13-year-old boy who died in a car accident this week are speaking out publicly about the dangers of distracted driving.

David Talsma was a backseat passenger in a minivan his 16-year-old sister was driving on Monday when a distracted driver caused a chain-reaction crash on a Michigan freeway. David was killed in the accident, and several others were hurt, including David’s sister, according to WZZM news.

STORY: Texting and Driving: We Have to Do Better

The 40-year-old driver told police he was checking his GPS and eating a sandwich, and didn’t notice that traffic had stopped in front of him.

A memorial will be held for David on Friday, but in the meantime, his parents are hoping to alert others to the dangers of distracted driving. “Not looking for one minute can change entire families’ lives,” Kristin Talsma, David’s mother, told WZZM. “It’s about being conscious every moment about what you’re doing when you’re driving, and the lives that can be changed in an instant.”

STORY: Beyond Texting: What Teens Really Do Behind the Wheel

David’s father, Jason Talsma, said he and his wife hope their son’s tragic death will cause others to think twice about taking their eyes off the road. “We just pray that, through this, people will reevaluate their driving habits,” he told WZZM.

Every day in the U.S., nine people are killed and more than 1,153 are injured in crashes that reportedly involve a distracted driver, according to the CDC. In 2013, 3,154 people were killed — and another 424,000 injured —  in car accidents involving a distracted driver, according to the government website distraction.gov.  And while most people think distracted driving involves a cell phone —  a driver texting, calling, even searching for music on a phone — distractions include “any secondary task that isn’t related to the guidance of the vehicle and takes your focus away from the roadway,” says David Hurwitz, a professor in the school of Civil and Construction Engineering at Oregon State University, whose work focuses on preventing and reducing crashes that occur in the built environment.

“When we are distracted, we are worse drivers,” Hurwitz tells Yahoo Parenting. “There’s research that shows that glancing away from the roadway is highly correlated with crash risk. When we glance our eyes away for more than two seconds at a time, we dramatically increase our risk of crash. We also know that the way that we look around the world changes when we are distracted — our scanning pattern narrows, so we’re less likely to detect hazards.” When people text, they take their eyes from the road for an average of five seconds, according to distraction.gov.

Despite these statistics, drivers still don’t fully comprehend the dangers of distracted driving, according to Robert Rosenberger, a professor at Georgia Tech who studies the philosophy of technology. “The reality is that drivers are not really good at knowing how distracted they are,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s very normal for drivers to be overconfident about how they are able to handle driving distractions. One government survey found that most people think other people are bad at driving while talking on the phone or texting, but also everybody thinks that they are the exception to the rule. So it’s not that people don’t know it can be distracting to do these things behind the wheel, but that people think those statistics don’t apply to them.”

As was the case in this most recent crash, GPS has increasingly become a culprit when it comes to distracted driving, says Jennifer Smith, executive director of StopDistractions.org. “When GPS first came out, there was a lockout built into the system so it would not allow you to enter information while you were driving. You had to be stopped,” Smith tells Yahoo Parenting. “People are not supposed to be entering information into the GPS while driving, and now we’re seeing a lot of accidents involving that.”

Smith admits that even she used to drive with her mind on other things — until her mother was killed by a driver who was talking on the phone in 2008. “I used to be on the phone all the time before I lost my mom,” she says. “The car was where I did all my work. But now I know our brains are literally impaired when we do these things — it just doesn’t function as well. It’s an impairment, just like drunk driving. If you’re eating a sandwich and you don’t really know where you’re going and you are in traffic, anything can happen. And that’s someone’s mother or father or daughter or son or friend.”

The Talsmas told WZZM that the goal shouldn’t be stricter driving laws but changing people’s mindsets. Rosenberger says both are important. “The law is always going to be so far behind the advancing technology, so we need a cultural shift,” he says. “Drunk driving, through the efforts of activist groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is generally accepted as a bad thing to do. That’s not to say it doesn’t happen, but people know that it’s not OK. That’s what we need with distracted driving. Right now it’s seen as something normal — it needs to be one of those things where, if someone receives a call from someone they know is driving, they don’t pick up. Or, if we’re the passenger, we won’t let the person driving have their phone.”

Unfortunately, Rosenberger says, much of society is moving in the opposite direction. “These days, companies market their cars as infotainment systems,” he says. “We think of driving as not just a task we’re trying to get done responsibly, but we believe the car is a mobile workplace where we have to get other stuff done while we’re sitting and wasting time.”

Smith says that since changing her own driving habits, she has come to enjoy her quiet time on the road. “Now I know it’s my time to be alone with my thoughts,” she says. “You need to just be thinking about the road, looking at the road and driving.”

Rosenberger says all drivers need to remember one thing: Any of us could be that man checking his GPS and eating his lunch. “We all should feel like that could happen to us,” he says. “We all should feel like we could be that driver.” 

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