Jamie L. LaReau Detroit Free Press
Published 11:00 p.m. UTC Aug 4, 2018
In the summer of 2016, Mitchel Kiefer set the all-time sales record for Cutco Knives.
During his award acceptance speech, Mitchel, then 18, told the audience, “Dream colossal. Change someone’s life. Change the world.”
His words are now the epitaph on his grave. Just two months after his speech, Mitchel Kiefer died in a car accident involving a distracted driver.
Out of that, his father, General Motors executive Steve Kiefer, founded The Kiefer Foundation in October 2016 to honor Mitchel and end distracted driving and its related injuries and deaths. That is, at least until autonomous vehicles are deployed on a full-scale basis, which Kiefer believes will be safer than humans behind the wheel, he said.
“I don’t want Mitchel’s life to not have a purpose,” Kiefer, GM’s vice president of global purchasing and supply chain, said. “Mitchel always wanted to change the world, he talked about it. … We want to help him by eliminating this senseless epidemic.”
As the foundation approaches its two-year anniversary, some of its upcoming initiatives include erecting more cable guard rails along the stretch of highway where Mitchel died, use NHL hockey players and hockey to end distracted driving and offer scholarships for those who offer solutions to end the problem of distracted driving.
Sept. 19, 2016 was a Monday morning and Kiefer’s son, Mitchel, was driving on westbound I-96 near Dietz Road in Ingham County. Mitchel, a lifelong hockey player and goalie for the Detroit Central Catholic High School 2016 state championship hockey team, was headed back to school at Michigan State University.
Traveling behind him was another college student, a 21-year-old woman who attended Western Michigan University, Kiefer said. When traffic slowed, so did Mitchel, but the woman behind him did not. She smashed into the back of his car at 82 mph.
“It’s difficult to prove what was distracting her,” said Kiefer. “But her car was going 82 mph and she never touched the brakes when she hit Mitchell’s car. She was distracted in some way that she never hit the brake.”
Her car pushed Mitchel’s car across a 52-feet-wide median into eastbound traffic where he was hit broadside by a full-size tractor trailer truck.
Mitchel was killed instantly. The woman who hit him struck the truck’s trailer and survived, Kiefer said.
“Those were the circumstances that brought us to this,” said Kiefer.
Play with purpose
About 40,000 people each year are killed on the highways in the United States, and about 10 percent of those deaths are caused by distracted driving, said Kiefer. That means 10 people a day every day are killed by a distracted driver.
To reduce that number requires constantly reinforcing awareness of this problem and asking people to take a pledge to put down their phone and just drive, said Kiefer. His foundation will do just that at the second annual Play with Purpose Charity Hockey Game on Aug. 11 at USA Hockey rink in Plymouth. Mitchel’s hockey team won the State Championship in 2016 there and it was recently dedicated in Mitchel’s honor.
About 15 NHL players and several local hockey players will play from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. It costs $10 to attend. But the event is more about raising awareness than raising money, Kiefer said.
“I want the arena full of 3,000 people and I don’t care if it just breaks even,” said Kiefer. “We want them to be aware and make a pledge to not drive distracted and to use the ‘do not disturb’ function on their phone when they drive.”
The Kiefer Foundation also launched a campaign on Memorial Day directed at high school students and other young people. It asks the young people to submit a 30-second video clip to the Kiefer Foundation’s Facebook page. In it, they should outline how they would stop distracted driving or stop a friend from driving while distracted. Kiefer hopes to get 100,000 entries by Sept. 19 and pick the five best. The winner will get a $25,000 college scholarship and the four others will win lesser amounts of scholarship money.
“It’s a competition and creates a buzz and everyone who makes the video is now a pledge,” said Kiefer.
The foundation also is taking tangible action to enhance driver safety.
Kiefer said that if there had been a guard rail at the spot where his son was hit, that rail would have saved Mitchel from going into oncoming traffic. So last year, the State of Michigan and the Kiefer Foundation each invested $300,000 to build a 1.7-mile cable barrier across the highway along the median strip on I-96 from Doan Creek past Dietz Road.
The cable barrier is a relatively new kind of highway barrier that the Michigan Department of Transportation began deploying across the state in 2008. The barriers are less expensive than concrete barriers and are more effective than other types of barriers at stopping vehicles from veering across highway medians.
Since installing it, Kiefer said it has stopped six cars from crossing the median. As a result, the Kiefer Foundation and the state will now extend the cable barrier along the next 2-mile stretch of that highway starting “soon,” Kiefer said.
Besides saving lives, Kiefer said the partnership with the state is important because it shows other nonprofits how to partner with government to enact public safety measures.
“I had a woman from Illinois call me recently saying her son went off the road and died,” Kiefer said. “She’s been trying to get help for years there, so I gave her the information on how we did it.”
Simulators and laws
The Kiefer Foundation raises much of its money through golf outings. The most recent one, in June at Oakland Hills Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, raised more than $700,000, he said.
That money supports such groups as The Peers Foundation in Grand Rapids, which uses an augmented reality simulator at schools or at events to simulate a crash caused by distracted driving. The participant using the simulator is given a score on how that distracted driving would have impacted them.
“We bring them to events to create awareness,” Kiefer said. “We’ve probably given them $100,000 over this past year.”
Kiefer also is pushing for government policy changes. Presently, 47 states have laws banning texting while driving. But, the law has not been effective because it’s hard for police to determine whether someone was texting or not while driving.
Some 16 states have hands-free laws, which means drivers cannot have a phone in their hand or touching any part of their body while talking on their phone when they are driving. In those states, there has been a 15-percent reduction in crashes.
“We’re trying to get every state to adopt some sort of hands-free legislation, too,” said Kiefer.
A higher cause
Kiefer has three other children: Mitchel’s older brother, Blake, who is 22, and two younger sisters ages 16 and 18.
A small board of directors made up of a people who are “really creative and effective” help Kiefer run the foundation when he’s at his full-time job at GM. He also relies on hockey moms in each state to help spread awareness.
Still, Kiefer spends many of his free hours each week pursuing this cause.
“It’s usually in the middle of the night when I wake up with ideas,” Kiefer said. “It’s a balancing act with my full-time job and my family life. But it’s become a bit of a life purpose, so I find time for it.”
For his work, the Automotive Hall of Fame honored Kiefer with its Distinguished Service Citation at its 2018 Induction & Awards Gala on July 19. He said the award was overwhelming and humbling because this work is so important to him.
“When you go through such a significant loss, it can’t help but change you,” Kiefer said. “I never imagined I had any free time to do anything else, but work. This has changed my life; it’s a higher cause.”
Contact Jamie L. LaReau: 313-222-2149 or [email protected]
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