Joel Feldman of The Casey Feldman Foundation and EndDD.org shares his personal experience of loss and the impact he hopes his efforts will make on putting an end to the growing danger of distracted driving
The Face of Distracted Driving Joel Feldman of The Casey Feldman Foundation and EndDD.org shares his personal experience of loss and the impact he hopes his efforts will make on putting an end to the growing danger of distracted driving. Pennsylvanias text ban has been law for nearly a full month now, but its safe to say that drivers of all ages are pushing the limits. Certainly the somewhat defiant behavior being witnessed on the roads and highways here in Philadelphia is happening all over the country, and for most, it wont stop until a ticket gets handed to them, or worse. Distracted driving is not a made-‐up problem. The people behind the cause are not fanatics. Many, though not all, are parents or siblings of individuals that died or were severely injured in driving accidents. Plenty of them are kids and teenagers, who watch their parents text, eat, engage in business conversations, change the radio station, read email, even put on makeup, all while navigating the roadways. Youve done it, weve done it. Even Joel Feldman, father of Casey Feldman, who died in 2009 after being hit by a distracted driver, did it. Ever since losing his daughter, Feldman has dedicated his time and energy to changing not just his behavior, but also all of our behavior. And its not just because he wants to infringe on others sense of freedom, or invite the government into another area of our lives; he simply wants to help protect other families from suffering the loss of a loved one, at least at the hands of a distracted driver. In the coming months, youll be hearing a lot more about Feldman, The Casey Feldman Foundation and EndDD.org. Along with partner, 60 for Safety, EndDD is leading a national campaign in April, National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, that will reach more than 100,000 students in one week, and kick off an ongoing safety and awareness campaign that will continue throughout 2012 and beyond. Click here for more information on this international Student Awareness Initiative, and please follow us on Facebook here and here, and also on Twitter.
How has the creation of, and your involvement with, the Casey Feldman Foundation (CFF) impacted your ability to try to adapt to the tragic loss of your daughter and stay engaged in the present? JF: Immediately after the accident, and for quite some time thereafter, you are devastated. You are numb, in disbelief, and can’t see how you are going to survive without your child, or that it is worth living at all. You cant imagine that youre here, but your child is not. Just about every day—even 3 years later—I think about the life Casey should be living. Kids are supposed to bury their parents, not the other way around. After some time, with the support of friends and family, you begin to come around and see that you will survive—for me that I had to survive for my wife and other child-‐they were entitled to a life and to somehow find some joy in living. Slowly I realized that Casey would be forgotten if we did not do something that allowed others to remember her—something that would make a difference. The tragedy of Casey’s death would be far worse if nothing good came about following her death. Creating the foundation is one way that Caseys friends and family can remember her. And, its my way of moving forward and trying to adapt to a world without my daughter. When did you decide to launch EndDD.org and why? JF: After we produced the Public Service Announcement (PSA) for the Department of Transportation, we were asked to participate in a few programs that brought us in contact with other parents and safety officials involved in similar causes. What we noticed was that while there were many like-‐minded groups, some concerns were not being addressed. We also noticed that people were moved by Casey’s story and committed to change after hearing us speak about Casey and the circumstances of her needleless and senseless death. We wanted to do our part to ensure that traffic safety would become a national priority. What are you short-‐term and long-‐term goals for CFF and EndDD.org? JF: Spreading our message to as many drivers as possible, and lowering the number of injuries and deaths due to distracted driving is our No.1 priority. One of our biggest goals for 2013 is to push a hand-‐held cell phone ban in Pennsylvania. Another is to host a "summit" event, where families whove lost loved ones to distracted driving can work together to create a plan of action for legal change. But because Casey volunteered for several charitable organizations, including a no-‐kill animal shelter, a soup kitchen and a homeless shelter, our mission also includes providing financial aid to high school and college students to help them discover the importance of volunteerism and community service. One of our newest projects that we have started with funds raised through the CFF, is to help small local non-‐profits with their technology needs. These non-‐profits don’t have the funds or personnel to write e-‐newsletters and blogs, engage in social media and beef up their Internet presence. As a result, their missions suffer. So we have set up a stipend program at Villanova, through the computer science department, that matches students with charities that need tech help. This program is really encouraging and we are looking to expand it to other universities and colleges. We also have supported students who devote their spring breaks to performing service across the
country through the Alternative Spring Break program. Trips have included New York City to feed the homeless, Woodstock, NY to work at a No Kill Animal Shelter, Cincinnati to help the homeless and New Orleans to aid Katrina victims. Additionally, each year on July 17th, the anniversary of Caseys death, we host a Day of Service and Remembrance at the Francisvale Home for Smaller Animals in Radnor, PA. Can you tell the progress EndDD and CFF are making? JF: The number of calls we are getting—3-‐4 a week—from schools all over the country requesting distracted driving presentations is certainly one indicator that our message is spreading. The number of Facebook followers on both of our community pages is steadily growing, and were establishing more and more relationships with individuals and organizations that have heard about us. The surveys that we are using, developed by the researchers at Children’s Hospital’s Injury and Research Prevention Center (CIRP), indicate that teens are changing their driving behaviors, and also speaking to mom and dad and getting them to change the way they drive. What impact are you trying to make during April’s National Distracted Driving Awareness Month and how? JF: In taking our presentations on the road nationally and throughout Canada, we are aiming to reach an unprecedented number of teenagers. By strategically combining the best of all past presentations and the feedback that we received, we intend to change the way both teens and adults think about their behavior behind the wheel. Delaware County and Montgomery County are declaring April as Distracted Driving Awareness Month, so although we have a North American campaign, we are keeping the focus local as well. Aside from CFF/EndDD.org, what are some other charities on the top of your list and why? JF: I am very fortunate that my partners at Anapol-‐Schwartz carry similar views about giving back to the community. The Law firm takes a percentage of our fees and uses those to benefit populations that are facing challenges similar to our most severely injured clients. Our mutual efforts have benefited several area organizations, including The Burn Foundation, Legal Clinic for the Disabled and Magee Rehabilitation Hospital. Of special note is a project we are currently working on with Magee to have its first therapy dog for use as part of occupational therapy with the patients, not only helping with immediate therapy needs, but also providing patients with the confidence to know that after discharge they would be able to have and care for their own dog, thus enriching their lives. How do you maintain your legal edge at the firm while overseeing CFF/EndDD.org? JF: Being able to continue to practice law with the support of my law firm and its 26 attorneys has been a gift. It has afforded me both time to heal and to focus my attention on distracted driving awareness. The bonus has been seeing so many lawyers from my firm get involved. During National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, well
collectively be speaking to almost 5000 students. What made you decide to be a grief counselor, and what have you learned/taken away from your grief counseling experiences? JF: Before Casey died, I was working toward a Masters Degree in Counseling. I was very focused on substance abuse and thought that would be the area in which I would concentrate. Now that Ive become acquainted with bereavement on such a personal level, I realize that my personal experience of loss makes me very good at helping others as they begin the process of adapting to loss. I am also able to combine lawyering and counseling-‐for 30 years I have represented badly injured people or the family members of those who were killed. It was necessary to explore their losses to be able to maximize their damage claims. As a result of my personal experience of loss, my counseling experience, including providing grief counseling through a local hospice, I am much better equipped to represent clients, including listening in an understanding way that provides comfort. I have written several articles for lawyers about loss and understanding client’s losses in order to better represent badly injured clients and their families. What is your favorite audience to talk to about distracted driving? JF: I enjoy working with students of all ages, and although the current campaign is focused on high school, I believe that in order to change the driving culture, we will need to start in middle school. Future years’ presentations will also include middle school students. And of course parents, who need to model safe driving behaviors for their children. Did you ever drive distracted? JF: All the time, and often with kids in the car. Id dial my cell phone, rummage in the glove compartment, program the GPS, eat, talk… I was like most everyone else—I thought that since I had not been in an accident I was a safe driver. I was not a safe driver, only a lucky driver. What do you do when you see someone driving distracted? What do you suggest other people do when they see distracted drivers? JF: The same rule applies as that for drunk drivers: friends dont let friends drive distracted. If youre in the same car, its as easy as speaking up. But when I see other drivers on their phones, or doing all the things I used to do behind the wheel, theres not much I can do but hope they dont get involved in an accident. I dont recommend honking or getting too animated toward passing cars for the obvious reason that you and the other driver will then be distracted. What is one of the biggest obstacles you have had to overcome since you started CFF? JF: Adapting to this role, on top of adapting to life without Casey, has been an evolving process. Im here, doing this, because Casey is dead. So understanding that and
continuing to put myself in situations where Im talking about what caused my daughter’s death is often an emotional challenge. When I see other young people, who will have a chance to live full lives, I think of Casey and how she won’t have that chance. After the presentations are finished I well up and think about what will never be for Casey. CFF, EndDD.org—theyre not going to bring Casey back. But its keeping my thoughts focused and her memory, alive. And, its making a difference in the lives of other families. I count myself as being very lucky that I have the opportunity to talk about my wonderful daughter and to save young lives in the process. How has the ability to align with similarly minded organizations made CFF/EndDDs mission easier? JF: Sharing ideas with those who have more experience with creating and guiding foundations, and bringing attention to a cause is invaluable. Weve learned a lot and found avenues to get our message out that we werent aware of when we started. The idea that so many individuals are working for the same cause is inspiring. Distracted driving is a global issue, and one that can be prevented. Its much easier to do as a unified effort. Looking back on the past three years, whats the most indelible thought, emotion or lesson thats come to you? JF: Ive represented accident victims for over 30 years, with many of them killed by distracted driving. The year before a distracted driver kills my daughter, I enroll in a Master’s program in counseling to learn how to better to listen to and speak with legal clients and understand their losses. I am given the opportunity to help those in mourning by providing grief counseling at a hospice. I have been asked to speak to groups about loss, about how to improve the awkwardness surrounding death so that those who have suffered losses can receive vital support, and I have the good fortune of being with law partners that support and encourage me to combine law and counseling to better serve our clients and their families. How did this all happen? Who could have written such a script? I dont think its a coincidence. I am here today, doing what I am doing because someone, somebody, some higher power wanted me to be here. And for that I am deeply thankful.