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Mary Barra joins campaign to get people to put their phones down when they drive

Detroit Free Press
Aug. 21, 2021
Carol Cain

We’re in the waning days of summer when many execs slow it down or squeeze in a vacation before the rush of fall kicks in. But not Mary Barra.

Though busy overseeing the huge global conglomerate with far-flung operations, the CEO and chairman of GM took time to put her influential foot on the pedal to help rev up attention for the #JustDrive campaign.

It’s an effort to help save lives.

Barra posted a new video on social media reminding folks to focus on driving when behind the wheel. “At GM, safety is in our DNA and we are committed to help create a future with zero crashes,” she says in the video.

“Unfortunately, over a million lives are lost each year in vehicle crashes around the world. Human error contributes to 94% of these crashes. In many cases, the driver is distracted. So, today, I pledge to do my part to help bring an end to distracted driving. And I challenge all of you to do the same. When you are behind the wheel, put your phone away, and just drive.”

Barra joins Tom Brady, Mark Wahlberg and Steve Yzerman who have also posted videos supporting #JustDrive, which was launched by the Kiefer Foundation.

Steven Kiefer, who started the nonprofit foundation in 2016 following the death of his 18-year-old son, Mitchel, because of a distracted driver, launched it along with the “100 Deadliest Days” ads, now running, which talk about the impact of distracted driving as fatalities jump 26% between Memorial Weekend and Labor Day.

“Nothing prepares you for that,” Kiefer told me in June when I last wrote about him. His foundation has picked up steam not only with celebs but also inspired states as they pass distracted driving laws.

So far, 24 states have laws that prohibit the use of handheld phones. Leaders from the Detroit Regional Chamber, AAA: The Auto Club Group and others are diligently working to make Michigan the 25th state as they convince legislators in Lansing to do the same.

Michigan state Rep. Mari Manoogian, a Democrat, teamed up with representatives Mike Mueller and Joseph Bellino, two Republicans, as they introduced a package of three bills that would make driving while manually holding your phone illegal. The bills are working their way through the process.

“AAA-The Auto Club Group encourages the Michigan House to pass these three bills (House Bills 4277, 4278, and 4279) when they return in the fall,” said Tiffany Hauser, director of government relations for AAA. “Distracted driving remains a growing traffic safety problem here in Michigan. Our research shows that education and legislation are key factors in changing driving behavior.”

The effort to get legislation adopted was launched at the Chamber’s Mackinac Conference in 2019 when Kiefer, president of GM International, shared his heartbreaking story.

The chamber will hold a virtual town hall, “The Push to End Distracted Driving in Michigan,” on Wednesday where Kiefer, Manoogian and Jennifer Smith, CEO and co-founder of StopDistractions.org, will talk about the issue. Glenn Stevens Jr., executive director of MICHauto, will moderate.

“Distracted driving legislation has been bouncing around Lansing for several years now,” said Sandy Baruah, president and CEO of the Chamber. “Every month and year that goes by without action means another family suffers the unspeakable loss the Kiefers did. Time to act.”

This effort is not unlike the path we went through in adopting seat belt laws a generation ago.

Kiefer is heading to Mackinac Island in September when the Chamber’s confab is held. With so much attention being paid to this issue, he’s hopeful leaders will pass distracted driving legislation so more people won’t have to experience his family’s heartbreak.

Honoring lives lost

Before U.S. Sen. Gary Peters heads off to the city of Hell on Monday to kick off his annual motorcycle tour of the state, he took time to introduce a bill to allow American servicemen onboard Flying Tiger Line 739, who lost their lives on their way to Vietnam during the early days of the crisis, to finally have their names placed on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington D.C.

Flying Tiger Flight Line 739, whose mission remains unknown, carried 93 U.S. Army soldiers, three South Vietnamese servicemen and a civilian crew of 11 heading to Saigon on March 16, 1962. No wreckage or bodies was ever found. The names of those servicemen have not been added to the memorial, which remains an issue for loved ones.

“Our brave men and women were deployed thousands of miles away from home during the Vietnam War. Many made the ultimate sacrifice in their service to our nation. … It is past time that we properly honor those lost. That’s why I will continue to work with my colleagues and the families of those lives lost on ways we can honor the service members killed in the Flying Tigers crash,” Peters told me.

The legislation would require the Department of Defense to authorize the inclusion of 93 names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall of the soldiers on that flight. Peters introduced an earlier version of his bill in 2019 but it never made it out of committee. He’s hopeful it will find more traction this time.

Donna Ellis Cornell, of Haslett, lost her father, Sgt. 1st Class Melvin Lewis Hatt, on that flight. “The last letter he wrote to my grandma and his brother said, ‘I’m leaving on a hurry-up, top-secret mission to Saigon, Vietnam,’ ” Cornell told me when I wrote about her in May.

Cornell said the servicemen onboard were part of an elite team of Rangers, hand-picked by President John F. Kennedy. She said those onboard knew the mission would be dangerous.

Morrill and Karen Worcester, who started Wreaths Across America, a nonprofit supported by Chevrolet and other corporations, heard their story and decided to erect a monument in May to honor those on Flying Tiger Line 739. It is located in Columbia Falls, Maine, and their names are etched on it.

Cornell, who has been toiling for years to get her dad’s name and others on the Washington memorial, explains it would provide closure for the families.

Yes, it’s been 59 long years. It’s time to do the right thing and make room for Sgt. 1st Class Hatt and the 92 servicemen on Flying Tiger Line 739 to have their names alongside the other fallen heroes of the Vietnam War.

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