The date was Feb. 26, 2016.

What began as an ordinary day turned tragic for Thomas Goeltz and his family, as that was the day his daughter Megan Goeltz was killed by a distracted driver.

Goeltz, a safety consultant and advocate for the National Safety Council was in Redwood Falls April 5. That morning he spoke with juniors and seniors from the Redwood Area and Cedar Mountain school districts about the dangers of distracted driving and a new emphasis that has been placed on prevention of the use of hands-free communication devices while driving as well.

“Using a hands-free device when driving does not make it any safer,” said Goeltz, adding data from the National Safety Council has shown those who are driving and using hands-free devices are just as distracted as those who are actually holding a phone in their hands.

Goeltz said it is not about seeing what is in front of you that is the issue, it is the disconnect that happens in the brain when one is driving and talking on the phone. 

Studies have shown that driving hands-free is similar to driving with a blood alcohol concentration of .08, said Goeltz.

“I believed that using hands-free devices was safer for a long time,” admitted Goeltz, adding that cognitive distraction that happens when one is not focusing on the major task of driving is what distracted driving is all about, and that can be anything from adjusting the radio and eating to use of electronic media devices.

According to Goeltz, there are 1.25 million people who die in motor vehicle crashes worldwide every year.

Statistics have also shown that motor vehicle crashes happen because of three major reasons – vehicle maintenance factors, environmental factors and human error.

Among those reasons, 2 percent can be attributed to vehicle maintenance factors and another 2 percent can be attributed to environmental factors.

“That means 94 percent of all crashes are the result of human error,” said Goeltz, adding it is so critical for people who are behind the wheel to focus on driving and nothing else.

Goeltz said he drove to Redwood Falls from his home in Hudson, Wis. the morning of his presentation, and along that drive he watched others who were also on the road.

“A lot of that driving was on rural, two lane roads,” said Goeltz, adding he also saw a lot of people weaving in and out of their lane. “Ten years ago if you saw someone weaving like that you assumed they had been drinking. Now nine times out of 10 they are doing something with their phone.”

Goeltz said people who are using hands-free devices may be looking at the road, but he said that disconnect is happening as their focus is on the conversation they are having.

“They may be looking at the road, but they are not seeing it,” said Goeltz.

If a conversation has to take place, Goeltz said drivers need to pull off the road to a safe place and then talk. He added, however just pulling off the road and onto the shoulder is not a safe place, as crash data has shown other districted drivers still on the road are not aware of vehicles on the shoulder.

As a safety consultant, Goeltz also shared with the students the importance of being seen. His advice is for students to have their headlights on all of the time when they are driving, adding that makes a vehicle more visible from a greater distance.

“If people don’t see you, as far as they are concerned you don’t exist,” said Goeltz.

Goeltz said there are devices and apps that can help prevent districted driving, adding the most important thing for students is to do whatever is in their power to make sure they get where they are going safely.

“Your family wants you alive,” said Goeltz, adding the impact of a death like his daughter’s has an impact far beyond the immediate family, as it impacts an entire community.

The crash Goeltz’s daughter was involved in was so horrific, state patrol officers have stated it is one they will never forget. Megan, who was stopped at a stop sign, was struck by a districted driver.

The worst news one can hear as a parent, said Goeltz, is when someone at the hospital tells you they tried everything they could.

According to the National Safety Council, 50 percent of teens will be in an accident at one time or another, and 60 percent of teens text and drive.

It is important even at an intersection where you have stopped to be aware of your surroundings, as one never knows when someone coming up from behind or to the side is driving distracted.

Multi-tasking is a myth, said Goeltz, adding the human brain can not successfully and effectively perform two tasks at the same time.

“The brain will switch from one task to another,” said Goeltz, “because it handles tasks sequentially.”

Studies have shown anticipating, receiving or sending a text, e-mail or phone call releases dopamine into the brain, and those forms of social media can become a source of addiction. It is all about instant gratification, and that is where it becomes the most dangerous.

Goeltz said teens are under a lot of pressure, as 73 percent of teen drivers said their friends put pressure on them to drive distracted. What is more surprising is 71 percent of teen drivers said they feel that same kind of pressure from family.

Another element that is on the rise is the number of pedestrians who are walking the streets districted.

Goeltz said it is so important for drivers to be aware of their surroundings, and the more distracted one is the less of what is going on around them they are going to see.

“When you are in a car you need to just be driving,” reiterated Goeltz.

Goeltz said there are a number of laws being proposed in the Minnesota legislature that would change the rules for use of phones in a vehicle.

He encouraged the students to learn more about them and then to contact their legislators to express their support for those proposals that would eliminate, or at the very least, reduce the amount of distracted driving in the state.

“We all need to do more to prevent distracted driving,” said Goeltz, adding his hope is that lives that have been lost send a message of the impact distracted driving can have.

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