Suzette Kendall joined the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce just a few weeks ago, and had no idea the impact her first event with the organization would have to her life.

Kendall tragically lost her husband Jay in a May crash after police say he was struck by a driver who was probably using a cell phone. The topic at Friday’s Chamber event?

Distracted driving.

“When I found out what the topic would be, all I could think is ‘Oh my gosh,’” she said following the program. “Obviously, this is something that’s very important to me.”

Kendall has already hosted one local rally to raise awareness about distracted driving, and said she will continue to push for “Jay’s Law,” a proposed bill to prohibit and raise awareness about the use of handheld devices while driving.

“We have a lot of support, and we’re still wanting to get the law passed to make people aware of the dangers,” she said.

Professional race car driver Andy Pilgrim, founder of the Traffic Safety Education Foundation, was the featured speaker at the event and shared information and statistics about how many deaths and injuries are caused each year by distracted driving.

“We have a distracted driving epidemic in the United States,” he said. “Distracted driving is a factor in 80 percent of all crashes, and that includes anything that takes attention away from driving. If someone crosses into your lane, you don’t care if they’re drunk, texting or asleep — you just need to be alert enough to realize it and act.”

Pilgrim noted countries such as Germany average 2,100 fatalities for a population of 91 million people, while the United States has 38,000 fatalities each year with a population of 320 million — well above what should be the expected average of 8,500 deaths.

“It’s absolutely inexcusable,” he said. “We have some problems here.”

Part of the issue, according to Pilgrim, is that education and driving restrictions are not developed and strict enough in the U.S. to ensure all drivers are adequately prepared. He noted previous attempts to increase the driving age from 16 to 17 or 18 in the U.S. have typically been met with resistance.

“I’ve worked with driving instructors, and the driving test is a joke,” he said. “I work with thousands of driver’s education teachers. They say you can take one average intelligence child, give them one hour, and they’ll pass the test. That’s inexcusable.”

Pilgrim said the other part of the equation is children are now watching their parents drive distracted and are learning the habit from them. To prevent that, Pilgrim said he would challenge parents to do a better job of setting an example of how to drive responsibly, so children will learn it is not safe to use a smartphone while driving.

“We have children coming from distracted driving homes now,” he said.

In an effort to get parents to buy into the initiative, Pilgrim said he hopes to spark their passion to protect their children by showing the serious dangers of distracted driving.

One example: In 1995 there was a recommendation to put childrens’ car seats in the back seat in case of an accident so it isn’t hit by the airbag in the event of a crash. Once parents understood the importance, they reacted.

“There are zero cases where that happened and actually killed a child, but the percentage went from 20 percent to 80 percent of parents moving those seats to the back, because of parents wanting to protect their children. That’s what we have to appeal to.”

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