Five years ago, Joel Feldman was like everyone else.
“I drove around distracted all the time,” Feldman told about 300 teenagers Friday at LSU Lab School. “I didn’t think it could happen to me, but then everything changed.”
That day, July 17, 2009, Feldman’s 21-year-old daughter Casey was killed as she was crossing the street, struck by the distracted driver of a delivery van.
The Feldman family soon formed a foundation in their deceased daughter’s name. A foundation initiative, End Distracted Driving, brought Feldman to Baton Rouge on Friday, his first visit to Louisiana.
“I know if that hadn’t happened to me, I’d be still be driving around distracted,” said Feldman, an attorney who lives in Philadelphia.
Feldman, who has given versions of his presentation to about 100,000 people around the country, came to Baton Rouge at the invitation of local attorney Burton LeBlanc. LeBlanc attended LSU Lab and has four children who have gone there or are still attending the school.
LeBlanc also is president of the American Association for Justice, a legal training and support group that participates in the End Distracted Driving campaign and has other attorneys giving presentations like the one Feldman gives.
Feldman spoke to LSU Lab’s high school students in grades 10 through 12, the ones old enough to drive. He offered a slick mix of statistics, interactions with the audience, promotional videos and skits to try to get the teenagers’ attention, targeting not only the students but their parents.
“I go around the country and see that many parents are not being good role models for their kids,” Feldman said.
In a skit, physics teacher Steve Babcock played just such a non-ideal role model father while Louis Gremillion, 17, and a senior, played his pestering son. Babcock repeatedly parried Gremillion’s complaints with lines like, “I’ve been driving for 40 years.”
Gremillion, president of the student council, said that the council is trying to pick up where Feldman is leaving off. On Monday, the council is handing out to students a checklist of 12 steps that they and their parent can take to drive safer. Students and parents are asked to check off which steps they are willing to undertake, sign the form, and return it to school.
After the talk, Gremillion said he was impressed by how personable Feldman was.
“He put himself on the student’s level,” Gremillion said.
Feldman did not stand on the stage, preferring to walk the aisles and mingle with the students. He asked the students how many of them texted or used their phones while they drove. About half the hands in the room went up.
Then Feldman asked them to rat out a student who was especially prone to such driving. The audience quickly pointed out one male student sitting in the middle of the school auditorium. The boy, upon questioning, was unphased, saying he never really worried that anything could go wrong.
Feldman, an attorney, suggested one possibility.
“(If you continue), it’s the closest you are going to come to jail,” he said. “That might be something you haven’t thought about.”
Louisiana this past spring strengthened an existing ban on texting and driving to also include driving and using social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The stricter law took effect in August.
Feldman, however, asked the teenagers to broaden their idea of what distracted driving is. He played a video on the topic that starts with a young man using his cell phone while driving. But he’s soon distracted in other ways, including changing the music, insulting a fellow passenger, playing a kazoo, and finally stirring a bisque he’s cooking.
While distracted driving is far from the biggest source of driving fatalities — about 3 percent of the 722 road fatalities in 2012 in Louisiana — Feldman hammered home that it’s “100 percent preventable.”
“You have the power to change how you drive,” he said. “You have the power to change how other people drive.”