All 30 men and women sitting in front of me have one thing in common: a distracted driver changed their lives. Some have lost a spouse, a parent or a child. Others have lost the ability to walk. In every case, the driver responsible was texting, using a cell phone or, in one instance, putting on nail polish.
This group was brought together by FocusDriven.org and the National Safety Council for advocacy training. Working with these everyday advocates, I am reminded of the fortitude it takes to journey from intense trauma and personal pain to positive, public advocacy. I’m also reminded of how different each person’s journey is.
Take Laurie Landgraf. In the summer of 2011, Laurie and her husband Dave were looking forward to retirement. They’d just purchased their dream cabin in Hayward, Wisc. One week later, Dave was riding his bike on a road he’d traveled countless times when a car going 55 mph struck his bike from behind. His helmet offered little protection, and he died three days later from massive head injuries. Evidence showed the driver of the car was talking and texting at the time of the crash, but without an airtight case, no felony charges were filed. Instead, the driver was issued traffic citations.
Today, Laurie is finding her voice as an advocate for cell-free driving. We recently spoke with her about what it was like to go public with a story that arises out of such tremendous loss. Her journey underscores the essentials of an effective advocacy story: keeping your story positively charged and focusing it on key messages.
Living Proof: Do you consider yourself an advocate?
Laurie: Yes. I’m feeling more comfortable using the term. I’m working towards that. And it’s definitely been a process.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that I started reaching out to others and learning all I could about the issue of distractible driving. And when I learned the facts, it was pretty mind-boggling. [ED. Cell phone use is a factor in 25 percent of motor vehicle crashes, according to the National Safety Council]. Besides FocusDriven.org, I also contacted the Bicycle Federation of Wisconsin because I knew they were working toward passing what’s called a “vulnerable user” law. They told me about an upcoming lobbying event and asked if I would participate.
I spoke at that event to about 50-60 people. I was not very prepared; I just spoke from the heart. But I did find my voice there, and that was the beginning of feeling like this is the direction I should go in terms of trying to make a difference. When I went to the lobbying days with the Federation, I met other people who also lost friends or relatives or spouses because of distractible driving. It’s powerful to be around other people who also speak up in the face of tragedy.
It surprised me to find my voice; I had been quiet for so long. I knew 3-4 days after my husband’s crash that it was probably texting and driving that caused his death. I couldn’t speak that out loud for a long time. I couldn’t physically and emotionally wrap my head around that whole thing because I was just in such a grief state. Everything was wrapped into anger and revenge.
You turn inward a lot when you have time to reflect. And I began to think: I’ve got to get some good out of this. This grief can’t go down as what people remember me for. That is not what Dave would want, and it’s not what I want to pass on to my children. I kept thinking there’s got to be another way to deal with this. Anger wasn’t helping me heal. It wasn’t helping me move forward. I thought, I can’t change what happened that day or the circumstances under which it happened. But I can make a difference in doing something. I can change this around.
That’s when I started realizing that I’ve got this experience I could turn from a tragedy into something positive. What I’m hoping to do too is to tell the truth behind the tragedy. It’s important to share not only my husband’s story but also the facts. We can’t just say, “Well, this is the story and this is what happened.” We need the statistics behind the story. That’s an important thing to keep in mind.
Living Proof: We’ve heard other advocates talk about how the choice to speak out with a personal story often involves negotiating a new identity. Talk to us a little bit more about how you’re approaching this new role, identifying yourself as an advocate.
Laurie: It isn’t easy to be in the limelight. I’m very similar to my husband. I don’t seek out opportunities to bring attention to myself. David liked doing a lot of things, being actively involved in many activities, and he did it humbly. And it isn’t easy to speak out. It will always bring me back to that day and what I experienced. So that takes – I think it takes courage and it also takes practice. I don’t feel like I’m going to get out there and do this without some bumps along the road.
But I do think the long-term is—and I have heard this from other advocates—that if you can make a difference in one person’s life or make one person think before acting, that really is what it’s all about. So: baby steps.
This life, this journey, this world is not all centered around us. It’s centered affecting the people around us. And that’s what pushes us to really do things and to make other people’s lives richer. Those are the things that make us, and our lives, fulfilled.
Somebody told me that out of grief comes goodness, and I remember thinking, how can it be good? How can missing somebody this much— what possible good can come out of this? And it was always right in front of me; I just needed to find my way.