In 2007, Vijay Dixit shed his former self as a corporate professional to devote his life to a cause he would have done anything to avoid.
After his 19-year-old daughter, Shreya, was killed riding in a car coming home from college, he and wife, Rekha, started the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation. He wrote a book, “One Split Second,” and created a behavior-transforming educational program.
“I no longer write résumés,” said Dixit of Eden Prairie. “I am now a distraction-free driving advocate for life.” It’s not only therapeutic. It’s because, “in every teenager on the road, I see my daughter.”
The father of Nayha, 37, and grandfather of two, updates us on a distracted-driving bill likely to be signed into law.
Q: The distracted driving bill passed both houses this year. Now what?
A: The bills differ slightly, so they now go to the conference committee to reconcile the language. The Senate bill allows you to hold your telephone in your hand to engage your GPS. I hope this very unsafe loophole is taken out. The problem we’ve faced with the existing ban on texting while driving is that it is exceedingly difficult to enforce. Law enforcement just cannot catch drivers texting on a hand-held phone. Even with the strictest laws, it is challenging unless that phone gets out of their hand. We hope both houses will create a particularly good bill to send to Gov. [Tim] Walz, who has said he would sign it.
Q: After a decade of toiling on this issue, is it a bittersweet victory?
A: Bittersweet is right. The bitter part is that, despite all the efforts, close to 5,000 people have died in Minnesota since Shreya died, about 20 percent due to distracted driving. We are making progress, but it’s very slow. Hopefully, this law will save future lives and that is the sweet part.
Q: Will a first offense fine of $50 be enough of a deterrent?
A: No money is enough of a deterrent. What other states have seen is that the money part doesn’t bother people too much. When I was in Connecticut, if you had a violation, they gave you one point; if you were speeding at 90 m.p.h. in a 30 m.p.h. zone, you probably got three points. If you get five or six points, your insurance rates go through the roof. In some cases, you lose your license. That is a very effective deterrent. The violation must inconvenience the violator.
Q: How do you address the “personal rights” defense?
A: It is OK to incorrectly assume that you have the right to drive distracted, to hold your phone, to not wear a seat belt. Remember, though, that no one gave you the right to kill me. Moreover, you are killing people on public property. You don’t own that road.
Q: What are typical excuses?
A: “I cannot be without my cellphone because I’m a salesman. The road is my office.” OK, I say. If you have to make a very important phone call, go to the closest parking area and make that call. And, “I need my GPS.” Wouldn’t you like to know where you’re going before you leave your house? Set it up before you go.
Q: Is hands-free OK with you?
A: I wouldn’t go that far, but hands-free allows for better enforcement. When you have both hands on the wheel, you are driving more safely.
Q: Tell us about Shreya.
A: She was a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in international business. She wanted to go into the Peace Corps and then work in the United Nations. She was a Dean’s scholar. And she was an extremely good singer. Her love was music.
Q: No one would blame you and Rekha had you pulled the covers over your heads. What pulled you away from grief toward advocacy?
A: We had an absolutely phenomenal grief therapist. She said we needed to turn our pain into something. She connected us with people for help, who have created foundations. The Shreya Dixit Memorial Foundation (shreyardixit.org) has actually given us more healing, a lot of comfort.
Q: Your work is in classrooms now.
A: We’re working with elementary school students in Eden Prairie, in the formative years of their life. They learn habits from their parents. If we can start conditioning their minds early with compelling stories, they can reprimand their parents instead of the other way around. We don’t want them to be rude, but kids can lead the way to safety by respectfully speaking up. Our program also has older teens from our Distraction-free Life Club mentoring 6-to-11-year old kids.
Q: Which age groups are the biggest offenders?
A: We have more teenagers involved in distracted driving crashes, but the extent of distraction is rampant for all ages. Young kids are being overblamed for this. When I talk to groups, I ask how many adults have driven distracted while their child is looking at them. Almost 100 percent say yes. When you ask the kids if they feel uncomfortable speaking up, they say, “Yes, but dad will yell at me.” These are real stories I get from these kids.
Q: When we look back on this issue in, say 30 years, what will we see?
A: It took so many years to get seat belt laws passed and now, if you don’t drive with seat belts, people look at you. With drunken drivers, people say, “Oh, he got a DWI!” It’s still not taboo to see a distracted driver. My hope is that, just as with drunken driving and seat belt laws, something like that will happen with distracted driving, too. I just hope very soon.