Five Septembers ago, my son Mitchel was a popular college student, a talented hockey goaltender and a gifted salesman who had just set a record selling Cutco knives. While accepting an award for his salesmanship, Mitchel told the crowd, “Dream colossal. Change someone’s life. Change the world.”
Now those words are carved into his tombstone. Two months after that speech, Mitchel died in a car crash caused by a distracted driver. He was 18.
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.
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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 I-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 weighing hard upon us, the foundation joined a coalition of more than two dozen safety advocates to form the National Distracted Driving Coalition.
In a news conference in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bruce Landsberg, the coalition pledged to educate the public about the dangers of distracted driving, as well as lobby Congress and state legislatures to crack down on the menace.
10 people are killed every day
In my home state of Michigan, where I lead General Motors International, the Kiefer Foundation is seeking passage of a bipartisan package of bill that would allow police to treat distracted driving as a primary offense, as they’ve long done for seat belt use.
People tell me to be patient – wait until next year, they say, or for an easing of partisanship in American politics. But every day we wait is 10 more deaths – the number of people who die daily due to distracted driving in the United States, according to official estimates. Experts say these numbers grossly underestimate the toll of distracted driving.
A heartbreaking phone call
Five Septembers ago, I was driving on I-696 in Detroit 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, the foundation named in his honor joins the National Distracted Driving Coalition with a sense of urgency and a call to action. Dream colossal. Change someone’s life. Change the world.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Distracted driving: How my son's death can help save others' lives