According to a July 2014 study by insure.com, a consumer insurance website, we Vermonters are not at our best when we are behind the wheel of a vehicle. Of the fifty states and the District of Columbia, we are the sixth rudest. We babble incessantly on our phones when we are supposed to be focused on the road, we tailgate, we have no idea how and when to signal a turn, and we drive as if we believe I-89 is the Talladega Superspeedway. (Corroborating the idea that we speed? A 2010 DriverSide.com study reported that Vermont is third in the U.S. for speeding tickets issued per capita. Either we have extremely conscientious law enforcement or we are not quite as chill as we like to believe.)
When I first read this story, my immediate reaction was that I would have a field day with rude driving jokes. I’d quote Judith Martin – a.k.a., Miss Manners. I’d make fun of the way the report’s findings seem to suggest Vermont’s “peace, love, and tie-dye” reputation and vibe are unearned. I’d recount the banana peels and water bottles (and jugs) that Vermont drivers have thrown at me as I have ridden my bike along a road’s shoulder.
And I would be sure to note that despite those water bottles and banana peels, most Vermont drivers have struck me as pretty darn civilized – one more reason I’m proud to live in the 802. I might even end by observing that the survey was in all likelihood a publicity gimmick, and insure.com simply wanted gullible columnists like me to write about it. (Mission accomplished.)
But then I thought of Casey Anderson Feldman. I never met Casey. But I stared at a large photograph of her earlier this month at the DoubleTree Hotel in South Burlington, Vermont while her father, Joel spoke of her death – and what it is like as a parent to bury your child. Casey was killed by a distracted motorist. She was 21, a senior at Fordham University and an aspiring journalist. She was crossing the street – was actually in a crosswalk – when she was run over.
Her father and I were among nine speakers sharing different moments from our lives as a part of the Vermont Association for Justice’s “Cornerstone Stories.” Feldman’s story was especially powerful, not simply because of the eloquence and honesty with which he shared every parent’s most devastating nightmare, but because of how he and his wife Dianne Anderson chose to go on living. And part of that path forward was the creation of the organization, “End Distracted Driving” (EndDD).
The group’s mission is to educate drivers – adults as well as teens – to the reality that driving is “not a secondary task, it should be the only task.” Among the distractions that lead to crashes? The cell phone (of course). But other causes include putting on makeup, eating, trying to read a roadmap, and changing the music. The driver who killed Casey was reaching across the console for a beverage.
In the last two and a half years, over 400 people have given the EndDD presentation to over 125,000 listeners. How powerful is the group’s message? I now throw my phone into my glove compartment when I get in my car. I can still make phone calls through the vehicle’s hands-free technology, but I am not even tempted to check an email or text, or try and punch in a new number.
This Wednesday, October 1, it becomes illegal to use any hand-held device while driving in Vermont. This was, in my opinion, one of the great accomplishments of the past legislative session, and I tip my hat to Senator Philip Baruth (D-Chittenden) who championed the law early on and Senator Richard Mazza (D-Chittenden/Grand Isle) who pushed the bill across the finish line. The law might not make us any less rude when we’re driving, but it will make us safer. More responsible.
And, in our way, we will be honoring the tragically short life of Casey Anderson Feldman.