Safety campaign with local ties earns national acclaim

By: Nick Mordowanec | Fraser - Clinton Township Chronicle | Published September 25, 2013

Put down your smartphone or your tablet or any other ancillary electronic device when driving.

That was the message of the “Remembering Ally: Distracted Driving Awareness Campaign,” which was created in Michigan and kicked off last year in Macomb County.

The campaign was created in memory of 16-year-old Ally Zimmerman, a Romeo High School student and Oakland County resident who died after being struck by a distracted driver on Dec. 28, 2010.

Zimmerman’s death was the catalyst in a video crusade initiated by the Traffic Improvement Association of Michigan (TIA) to bring awareness to an epidemic that is widespread across the country.

The campaign was one of five initiatives honored by the Governors Highway Safety Association as part of the Peter K. O’Rourke Special Achievement Awards ceremony in San Diego this past August.

“This national award truly recognizes the public safety officials, business leaders, and individuals who worked tirelessly to make the campaign a reality,” said Jim Santilli, executive director of the TIA, in a prepared statement. “As a result of exceptional teamwork, the campaign we created in Michigan is increasing awareness about the dangers of distracted driving on a global level.  Research has proven that education is a vital component to achieving a reduction of traffic crash fatalities and injuries.”

The TIA was formed in 1967 with the focus on engineering, education and enforcement. The engineering focuses on reviewing locations and how to approach crashes and data reports; education focuses on general safety (such as safety belts and not driving under the influence); and enforcement focuses mostly on using funds beneficially.

Santilli felt compelled to be an advocate against distracted driving, and Zimmerman’s story propelled the urgency of making the public aware of the injuries and deaths that are often a result of distracted driving.

He recalls attending a candlelight vigil in Zimmerman’s honor and noticing how many people showed up to pay their respects. She was a singer, an athlete and a member of student council — and Santilli wanted to make it a priority that tragedies like that should not occur on our nation’s roads.

“We talked about what can be done about the public and distracted driving,” Santilli said in an interview. “Education is instrumental to preventing death and injuries. People actually need to see (graphic) consequences of a traffic crash.”

The campaign awareness video was filmed in Clinton Township, on 18 Mile Road east of Garfield Road.

Numerous agencies and departments offered their assistance, from the Clinton Township Police Department to the Michigan Office of Highway Safety Planning. Even former United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood personally contacted Santilli and told him he would spread the campaign’s message by posting the video on his Facebook page, drawing even more attention.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 3,331 people were killed and an additional 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving a distracted driver in 2011. The Virginia Tech Transportation Institute reported that sending or receiving a text takes a driver’s eyes from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds, which is the equivalent of driving the length of an entire football field, blind, at 55 miles per hour.

Terry Williams of the National Transportation Safety Board said that some states have already eliminated methods of distracted driving, trying to focus on hands-free solutions.

“(The NTSB has) made recommendations to DOT (Department of Transportation) and private companies to develop devices that will enable cellphones when a person is driving,” Williams said.

Zimmerman’s message was used because it evoked a personal connection. Santilli said that his step-cousin was actually friends with Zimmerman, and he found that focusing on one person in the campaign was more impactful and that people would relate to it better.

Now, Ally Zimmerman’s mother speaks with Santilli at different forums around the state to spread the personal message about how her daughter died and to show others that there is a way to curb unnecessary accidents and premature deaths.

As Santilli said, it’s about people making the right choices to save lives.