When Jay Vaughn’s daughter was 6 or 7, she called him out one day for using his phone while driving.
“It’s funny how kids pick up on stuff, and she just right away said, it’s not safe,” recalled Vaughn, who has since stopped driving distracted. “It got me to change my behavior and just kind of knocked sense into me, like, what am I doing?”
That’s the kind of conversation Philadelphia-based advocate Joel Feldman hopes he can make happen in households across the country — with a new elementary-school program to combat distracted driving that taps into “the nag power of little kids.”
Developing a curriculum that will be free for teachers and aimed at second through fifth graders, Feldman and collaborator Emily Stein are aiming to get kids to function as the backseat police, reminding their parents to stay off the phone in the car — especially when their parents won’t heed other warnings.
“It felt like [some friends] wouldn’t listen to me, but if their child said to them, ‘Hey, Mom or Dad, I love you, and it’s not safe to drive while you’re talking on the phone’ … I felt it would get through to them,” said Stein, of Massachusetts, who runs Safe Roads Alliance. Her father was killed in 2011 by a driver who was programming a GPS; Feldman’s daughter was killed in an Ocean City, N.J., crosswalk by a truck driver reaching for a GPS in 2009.
The kids also will learn to be safe passengers — for example, not to fight with a sibling in the backseat or bug their parents for snacks — and to start understanding safe driving habits before they become drivers themselves.
“At this young age, they’re not afraid to speak up, they love following rules, and they love calling out their parents when we don’t follow the rules,” said Stein, 37.
On average, nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes involving a distracted driver each day in America, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Distracted driving can include eating, reaching for objects, dealing with kids, changing music, or personal grooming.
Texting and driving increases the risk of a crash by 23 times, according to one study, while reaching increases it by nine times; reading, by four; and grooming, by three.
The curriculum, which is being developed by an educational publisher, will include an animated cartoon mascot and worksheets to engage kids. Stein and Feldman hope it will be taught in classes and presented at assemblies in schools across the country.
“Children in more of the elementary age … they’re not shy to say something [to] Mom or Dad," said Vaughn, a lawyer from Kentucky who met Feldman at a presentation and created the American Association for Justice’s distracted-driving litigation group with him. "I think they would speak up — just like any other lesson they learn at school, they come home and say, ‘I learned this today!’”
In the decade since his daughter was killed, Feldman, who lives in Springfield, Delaware County, created the organization EndDD.org and has given talks to thousands of adults and children — and seen contrasting reactions to distracted driving.
“The long and short of it is, kids are willing to hold that distracted-driving person accountable: ‘You are disrespectful. You are selfish,’” Feldman said. But adults, he said, generally say it’s dangerous and then keep doing it. “We have to change the culture so … it’s no longer socially acceptable, and I think that’s how we do it — listening to the kids. We hold people accountable.”
The unit will focus on respect, a concept most kids are familiar with at school, rather than danger. It will teach kids how to speak up if they feel unsafe in a car — a skill its creators said could help protect them in other “see something, say something” situations as well. The materials offer solutions, remind kids not to distract the driver themselves, and lay the groundwork for good driving habits.
The program has been funded by a grant from Anapol Weiss, the Center City personal injury law firm where Feldman practices. He and Stein also have a fund-raising site open for donations to help cover the costs of rolling out and marketing the program.
“The goal is to not have it scare children, and to not have them shame parents. … It’s to touch upon safety but to focus on respect,” Stein said. “We want to empower them.”
They hope to get a few classrooms to test out some of the materials in June, and to persuade schools in the Philadelphia region and Massachusetts to pilot the program in the fall. They plan to release the complete curriculum in January.
The duo’s sample materials have already been tested by about 250 elementary school teachers who viewed the activity sheets and program outline and gave “a resounding yes,” Feldman said.
“I definitely think teachers will grab onto it, quickly because it’s such a relevant topic,” said Katie Whitehurst, a fourth-grade teacher from central Illinois who reviewed Feldman’s and Stein’s materials last year and has consulted with them. It "will be easy to use, but it’ll also spark some really great conversations in the classroom.”