Coalition pushes for tougher Michigan laws against distracted driving

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Families impacted by distracted driving joined with advocacy groups Wednesday to announce the creation of a coalition aiming to make Michigan roads safer. 

The Hands-Free Michigan Coalition said it wants to bring the public, businesses and safety groups and law enforcement together to combat crashes and injuries caused by distracted driving. 

Fatal crashes in Michigan increased 12% in 2020 and are up nearly 15% this year to date, according to a press release from the Kiefer Foundation. Distracted driving is blamed as one factor in the accidents and deaths. 

Steve Kiefer has been advocating against distracted driving since his son, Mitchel, was killed by a distracted driver in 2016 on I-96 in Michigan.

“We have been struck by the number of (distracted driving related) accidents,” said Steve Kiefer, father of 18-year-old Mitchel Kiefer, who was killed in 2016 by a distracted driver on Interstate 96. “It's estimated at least 10 people a day are killed — some estimate up to 50," he said, referring to national figures.

The Kiefer Foundation was founded in 2018 in the younger Kiefer’s memory with the hope of ending distracted driving related crashes with awareness, policy and technology.

Jennifer Smith of noted growing number of motorists are on social media, talking or playing games while driving, including some participating in Zoom meetings while on the road.

“With education and good laws and tough enforcement we can stop or reduce these crashes,” Smith said. “We’ve seen it work with seat belt use and drunk driving and it can do the same with distracted driving.

“We need everyone to help us," Smith said. "Our intent is not tickets and penalties. Our goal is to change behavior and save lives."

Ongoing discussions in Lansing involve broadening current restrictions to outlaw the use of phones while driving for everyone and increasing penalties for violations. Some advocates argue that Michigan's distracted driving laws lag laws in 24 other states requiring drivers' hands to always be free to operate a vehicle.

Since July 1, 2010, it has been illegal for a motorist to text while driving in Michigan. A first offense is punishable by a $100 fine and subsequent offenses by $200 fines. The only exceptions to the law are when a motorist is reporting an accident or medical emergency.

In 2013, Michigan drivers with Class 1 or 2 licenses or permits, normally under 18 years old, were prohibited from using a phone while driving in unless it is a voice activated system integrated into the vehicle. Drivers of commercial motor vehicles or school buses face penalties of $100 or more for using hand-held phones.

In 2019, Battle Creek passed a city ordinance prohibiting the use of a hand-held cellphone by a driver.

Participating in a Wednesday Zoom press conference with Kiefer was Bonnie Raffaele, mother of Kelsey Dawn Raffaele, 17, who died in a January 2010 car crash while driving and talking on her cellphone. The KDR Challenge — Kelsey’s initials — is actually short for Kids Driving Responsibly, an effort founded by the Raffaeles to meet with teenagers and impress them of the need to not be distracted when driving.

“Kelsey was killed 11 years ago,” said Bonnie Raffaele. “I’ve been working ever since to get things moving in Michigan to stop such deaths.”

Her daughter was talking on a cell phone while driving when she was involved in an accident, Raffaele said.

“We were all out to stop texting because it is dangerous but so is talking on a phone,” said Raffaele, who estimates she has driven at least 6,500 miles to visit groups of teenagers at schools and elsewhere to discuss distracted driving.

She was largely responsibly for the passage of Kelsey’s law in 2013, making it illegal for young drivers to answer cellphones or make calls while driving a vehicle. 

Another participant was Tammy Huffman, whose brother-in-law Arizona Police Officer Timothy Huffman who was killed at a May 2013 car crash scene when his police vehicle was slammed into by an 18-wheel truck driven by someone who was on Facebook at the time and unknowingly drove right through the crash scene.

“We didn’t have any distracted driver laws in Arizona at the time,” Huffman said. “It took a similar death of another police officer before one was enacted. We know these laws save lives. I want that kind of help here in Michigan.”

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