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FocusDriven: Aiming to wipe out use of cellphones while driving

Jennifer Smith of Riverside, Ill., won’t rest until no one is using a cellphone while driving a car. As founder and president of FocusDriven, she has waged war against this type of distracted driving, appearing on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” NPR and “20/20” to share her message.

All of FocusDriven's board members, including Smith, have lost a loved one in crashes caused by cellphone distraction. Smith, whose mother was killed in such an accident in 2008, spoke with about her organization and its effort to put an end to distracted driving. How does FocusDriven define “distracted driving”?

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Jennifer Smith: FocusDriven focuses on cellphone-distracted driving. We know there are many types of distracted driving -- eating a hamburger, reaching for something in the back seat, changing the radio station. But we focused on cellphone-distracted driving just because we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew. Also, cellphone use while driving is the most prevalent distraction there is out there. What’s been your approach to combating distracted driving and getting your message to the public?

Smith: We’re really just trying to put a human face on this. We modeled everything we’ve done after MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). We try to put a human face with this behavior and let people know that there are real lives and real stories behind all the research and statistics. We just want to be a place for victims and their families to share their stories.

I know when I started doing this, I’d go around talking about how my mom was killed by a cellphone-distracted driver and I quote all the findings and the research, and people just kind of gloss over. But once they hear the personal stories — this was my mother, this was a great person —once they realize this could be their mother or their children, that’s when they have that “ah-ha” moment and it matters. What do you view as FocusDriven’s most significant accomplishment thus far?

Smith: Oh, goodness. It has been a truly incredible experience — just a little over a year. The amount of people we’ve reached and the exposure we’ve gotten all together is unbelievable. Never did we imagine that we’d be where we are this fast. Working with the U.S. Department of Transportation has really done so much for us.

But I think the most significant thing we’ve done is bringing these families together so they have someone to talk to that’s been through it. That way, they can see that we really are making a difference and we really are affecting all these people. What’s been the biggest challenge in getting this message out and bringing about the change that you hope to see?

Smith: There’s a few of them. One is getting people to realize it’s not just texting. There’s no research to show that a hands-free device is any safer. Overcoming what people have been told for so many years — that’s hard to do. Getting them to understand that it’s not a situation where they’re OK and everyone else is bad. Well, no. No one can do this while driving. Our brains don’t have that ability.

The other challenge is comes when these families go out and try to get the laws changed in their state. They’re working so hard, and then there will be a few (state) representatives who feel it’s an unnecessary law and kill it. The public overwhelmingly supports these laws. But when it gets to the legislature, they’re not always representing the public’s wishes. What role do auto insurance companies play in helping this mission?

Smith: I’ve got a big something to say on that one. Not only do we need the laws, the enforcement and the penalties to be high so people realize there are consequences to this — we also need the insurance companies to make those same adjustments. Punish those drivers who do this.

For one instance, the man who killed my mother, he’s a great person. He speaks out against the issue now. He didn’t know that simply (talking on the phone while driving) was dangerous. But his insurance only went up by $60 every six months after killing my mother. That’s just shocking to me. Of course, through the criminal charges, his license wasn’t even suspended, he got no points on his license. There needs to be consequences in all realms. These people need to have their insurance rates reflect the fact that they made a very irresponsible choice. It’s interesting that you have maintained contact with the person who was involved in the accident that killed your mother. How has that factored into what you’re doing with FocusDriven?

Smith: I had one of the rare cases. When he got out of the car, he immediately admitted he was on the phone and he never saw the light. He pleaded guilty to the charges. He was regretful and remorseful. Even from the time it took for us to get to the court hearing, he started speaking out against this issue on his own. He had to write a paper for a college class … on cellphone use while driving. He decided to make a change.

I was on the phone back then, too, when I was driving. My mother would answer the phone while she was driving if I was to call her. We didn’t feel like we could hold it against him for doing something he honestly didn’t know was (wrong). Once he learned how dangerous it was, he stopped.

His life has been forever changed. He thinks about my mother every day. We forgave him, and that’s something I learned from my mom. She was a forgiving person.

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