Boston hospital begins teen distracted driving study, partners with father of 21-year-old killed by distracted driver

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Casey Feldman, 21, was crossing a crosswalk on the way to her summer job in Ocean City, N.J. in 2009 when she was hit by a distracted driver, cutting the aspiring journalist’s life short.

In the wake of her death, her father has made it his life’s mission to prevent another parent’s worst nightmare.

“We used to say we wanted to raise awareness about distracted driving. We don’t say that anymore,” Joel Feldman, Casey’s father said. “People know it’s dangerous, but they do it anyway. We want to stop distracted driving.”

Feldman founded End Distracted Driving, an organization that’s partnering with Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston to pioneer new research on teens’ distracted driving aimed at creating a youth-driven program to cut down on it.

The 15-month study will differ from existing ones that rely on tools like driving simulators. Instead, it’ll consist of surveys and focus groups of teens, where they’ll be asked about their motivations for distracted driving and what messages would resonate with them to end it.

It will then culminate in a distracted driving video and lesson plan devised by teens and disseminated to high schools across the country, as opposed to existing programs developed by adults.

“I’m not going to talk to people who have driven at least a couple of years about the dangers of distracted driving,” Feldman said. “We all know it, but it doesn’t matter because we don’t think it’s dangerous when we do it. We think we’re great drivers.” He noted that in surveys of high schoolers he’s spoken with, 70% of them say their parents drive distracted.

In Massachusetts, 271 out of 2,340, or 12% of fatal crashes between 2014 and 2020 were due to distracted driving, according to the Fatality Analysis Reporting System. Of those 271 crashes, 20 were caused by teens, 85% of whom were male.

Rebecca Robbins, an instructor at Harvard Medical School and the principal investigator on the study, noted several reasons why teens are an ideal target for this research.

“The whole goal is to really intervene when people are licensed, and then have this kind of ‘Aha!,’ a light bulb go off, that stays with them for the rest of their lives, and can then support healthy decision architecture relating to driving behavior,” she said.

Besides the fact that teens are less experienced drivers, “the current generation in particular has grown up with cell phones, and they’re part of the fabric of daily life,” she added. “In high school, there’s often pressure from the fear of missing out … So many aspects of our lives are set up for instantaneous responses.”

Teens are also sleep-deprived and have not fully developed the proper decision-making skills to put their phones down.

Feldman added that teens tend to take a stronger moral stance against distracted driving in his experience. When he shows parents and teens a video of a distracted bus driver, only the teens use terms like “selfish” and “disrespectful” to describe his actions.

He wants teens to see driving without distractions as a sign of respect to other drivers on the road and passengers in the car.

“I want them to feel really uncomfortable the next time they get in the car if they haven’t put their phone on airplane mode, they haven’t put it on Do Not Disturb while driving.”

Emily Stein, a Massachusetts resident who lost her father in a distracted driving accident, pushed hard for the hands-free driving law to be passed in the state in 2019.

“It’s one of the scariest things when you see drivers not looking at the road,” she said in an email. “They simply cannot be in control of their car if they are not looking at the road. America has a serious problem.”

Her organization, Safe Roads Alliance, has partnered with Feldman’s organization to teach students in grades 2-6 about the dangers of distracted driving and how to speak up if they’re in the car with a distracted driver. Methuen and Medford Public Schools are bringing this program to their classrooms this spring.

A spokesperson for the state Executive Office of Public Safety and Security noted that the Baker administration has awarded $70.7 million in grants to promote highway safety since 2015.

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