Minnesota dad taps 'drivers in the making' to spread hands-free message

Minnesota dad taps 'drivers in the making' to spread hands-free message

Vijay Dixit still feels the pain from losing his daughter in a crash that involved a distracted driver, and he’s been on a mission to make the roads safer ever since.

His latest effort is a 2020 wall calendar that features colorful anti-distracted driving sketches by kids who are many years away from getting a driver’s license, yet know the risks motorists face when they drive while using their phones.

The calendar, being released this week, came out of a class called “Drivers in Making,” for children ages 6 to 9, that focused on bad things that can happen when drivers are distracted.

Dixit last summer brought in members of Eden Prairie High School’s Distraction-Free Driving Club to lead more than 20 kids in an afternoon of games, skits and videos to illustrate how quickly driving can turn dangerous or deadly when motorists use technology. The goal, Dixit said, was to get the youngsters to start adopting safe driving practices long before they get behind the wheel and give them skills and intervention strategies to use when they see other drivers exhibiting unsafe driving habits.

At the end of the day, the high school leaders had the future drivers draw pictures to show what they had learned. It turns out, quite a bit.

“They knew all about distraction, Bluetooth and the hands-free law,” Dixit said. “They don’t spell well, but they know how to communicate.”

He captured the drawings and the young students’ messages to create the calendar, which also displays names of victims who have died in crashes attributed to distracted driving. Each month includes statistics on distracted driving from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

The calendar comes out as distracted driving continues to be a problem on the roads. Even though the state’s hands-free law that prohibits drivers from holding cellphones while behind the wheel went into effect three months ago, many drivers have not complied. In September alone, the State Patrol cited 2,729 drivers, up 18% from August when 2,317 tickets were issued, according to the Department of Public Safety. Data also show that through October, 26 people died in distracted driving-related crashes this year.

In addition to holding a phone, accessing the web, streaming videos and using social media apps are illegal while behind the wheel, even in hands-free mode. Dixit hopes the calendar will be a visual reminder to all motorists to put their phones down.

Shreya Dixit was 19 and returning home from college when she was killed in a crash attributed to distracted driving on Interstate 94 in Wisconsin in 2007. Since then, her father has pushed legislators to pass the state’s hands-free law, written books on distracted driving and helped start distraction-free driving clubs at a handful of metro-area high schools, including Eden Prairie. Club members encourage classmates to keep their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road. Dixit believes peer-to-peer interactions can influence future drivers to go distraction-free.

“Young kids look up to older teens in their schools and may listen to them rather than their parents,” Dixit said. “If teens can mentor these kids, that might make a difference.”

The calendars and class information is available from the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation, a nonprofit Dixit started to raise awareness about distracted driving.

After a summerlong closure, ramps at the Interstate 694 and Rice Street interchange in Little Canada will open this week. The westbound ramp to Rice Street will open Monday and the eastbound ramp to Rice Street will open Tuesday. Ramsey County rebuilt the interchange to improve traffic flow and add amenities for bicyclists and pedestrians.

Follow news about traffic and commuting at The Drive on startribune.com. Got traffic or transportation questions, or story ideas? E-mail drive@startribune.com, tweet @stribdrive or call Tim Harlow at 612-673-7768.

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