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Preventing Distracted Driving: Navigating Towards Safer Roads for All with Karen Torres

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In recognition of Distracted Driving Awareness Month, we are honored to welcome Karen Torres to The Safety Guru, where she will share her heartfelt story of turning personal tragedy into impactful change. Karen became committed to advocating for road safety after losing her father in a distracted driving incident. She has devoted her life to raising awareness about work zone safety and the dangers and realities of distracted driving that affect us all. Tune in as Karen advocates for safer roads for all through education, situational awareness, and being an effective role model.

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Real leaders leave a legacy. They capture the hearts and minds of their teams. Their origin story puts the safety and well-being of their people first. Great companies ubiquitously have safe yet productive operations. For those companies, safety is an investment, not a cost. For the C suite, it’s a real topic of daily focus. This is the safety guru with your host, Eric Michrowski, a globally recognized ops and safety guru, public speaker, and author. Are you ready to leave a safety legacy? Your legacy success story begins now.

Hi, and welcome to the safety guru. Today I’m very excited to have with me Karen Taurus. She’s the founder of All for You Dad and a safety motivational speaker on roadside safety. So, as we’re entering April’s distracted driving awareness month, I think this is a topic of conversation. So, Karen, welcome to the show. Really excited to have you with me.

Oh, thank you so much, Eric. I’m really excited to be here.

So, let’s start with your dad’s story.

Okay. On St. Patrick’s Day of 2006, my father, who worked for the New York State Department of Transportation, was with his crew on Sunrise Highway in Eastport, Long Island. They were filling in potholes, and a cement truck driver had entered the work zone. Not only was he speeding, but he was also doing 60 in a 45-mile-per-hour zone. He was just drinking a bottle of water, and the bottle had slipped out of his hands, so he reached down to pick it up. But when he had reached down to pick it up, not only did he take his eyes off the road, but he had pulled the steering wheel down with him. And by the time he looked back up, he had crossed over the closed lane, and he had slammed it into the work zone. And that’s where he hit and killed my father, Patrick Mapleson. Since my father’s death, I have turned my tragedy into something positive. And I felt it was really important to talk about work zone safety and the dangers of distracted driving. When my father was killed, texting was really just kind of the upcoming thing. And it’s funny because I never wanted to be a public speaker.

I hated public speaking growing up. I’d rather have failed a class than speak in front of people. And when you get this desire to share a story, knowing that you could possibly save a life, it’s amazing what you can overcome. At my first presentation, my knees knocked, and now I could speak in front of 1000 people. And it’s amazing that turning a tragedy into something that is, for me, so powerful.

Right? Distracting driving is becoming a bigger and bigger issue. You talked about cell phone use now. The number of times I’m on the interstate, and I see somebody texting as they’re driving. It’s scary. But in this case, it was just a bottle of water. And there was no intention. Right. Tell me a little bit about what had happened. Obviously, he was days away from what I remember from his retirement.

So, my dad had just turned 66 the day before. He was getting ready to retire in seven months. And I think about that. That was all taken away from him because of a distracted driver. And yes, this was not intentional, but people really need to understand that it was 100% preventable. No one thinks that. Okay, I will take my eyes off the road for 2 seconds to do something. I’m going to kill someone. But this is exactly what’s happening. My dad lost his life in such a horrific way. I was told that actually the driver of the cement truck told me that when he looked up, my dad was standing there right in front of him. And they locked eyes. And then my dad stopped, tried to shield himself from the impact. And he was first hit his head hit the bumper. And then he was run over and went up through the wheel well. He was thrown in the air like a rag doll. And the passerby said they saw a man literally tossing in the air like a rag doll. And when my dad landed, he was completely disfigured from the top of his head to the tip of his toes.

And they wouldn’t let family members. I’m sorry, they wouldn’t let me, my brother or my sister id him. So, my husband had to do it. And he said by doing that, his mind has been forever fractured. And I don’t think that many people realize how much it destroys a family. It’s not just about the one person who was killed. Some of my dad’s crew, some of these men, couldn’t return to work for months. Even the driver of the cement truck had a nervous breakdown. He was not a young, inexperienced driver. He was a retired New York City fireman. He spent his entire career saving lives. And that poor choice he made that morning, he has to live with the fact that he killed my dad. And he didn’t mean to do it, but that’s suffering for him. He told me that my father’s face was the first person he saw when he woke up. And the last person he sees before he goes to bed. So, we all know that prison sentence is in his mind. Nobody ever wants to live with something like that. And, yeah, my dad was.

His golden years were taken away from him, and he was such a simple man. And all my dad ever wanted to do when he retired was get a little shack by the water so he could fish and read, and all his grandkids called him Grandpa Fish. And it is. It’s really sad. And I always say that it doesn’t matter how much time goes by, and you’ll always still want the love and the guidance of your parents. And it’s just sad that he worked so hard his whole life for those golden years, and he was robbed of it.

And distracted driving is, to me, and roadside safety is probably what scares me the most because it’s really hard to protect workers on the side of the road you get accustomed to. I’ve talked to many people who work on the side of the road, and they get comfortable with traffic so close to them. And they’ve got cones, in many cases, as the defense mechanism or maybe a little more. And you’re relying on other people that, in this case, weren’t focused on driving.

I never knew how dangerous my dad’s job was. He kind of shielded that from us. And with the newer laws of slowing down in work zones, and there are now speed cameras, I know that people get upset, but you have to think, this is their office, roadside workers, this is their office. This is what they’re doing. And I don’t understand why we’re not giving them the respect they deserve. They put their lives on the line every day so that the roads are better and safer for us. So why wouldn’t we give them the same respect by slowing down and moving over?

The part that frustrates me is often you’ll see people maybe go a little over the speed limit in a regular zone, and then in the working zone, I’ve seen so many times, people barely slow down. It’s almost an inconvenience for them to slow down, not even thinking about people on the side of the road.

Right. They dehumanize them. They’re frustrated because they’re the ones that are slowing them down. Because it’s a construction zone. A zone, excuse me. But meanwhile, like I had just said, they’re there because they’re repairing the roads to make it safer for us. It’s really sad.

How do we make a difference in this? How do we make a difference in workplaces that where people have to work on the side of the road, and that includes first responders, includes utility workers, in many cases, includes anybody that’s maintaining roads. How do we make that workplace safer, and how do we get people focused on driving?

Well, of course, education and speaking. I mean, for me, going and sharing a personal story, I feel has a huge impact. It’s almost like we got to bring it back to basics. Distracted driving can affect anyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or if you’re 86, if you’re a blue-collar worker, if you’re a white-collar worker, it can affect everyone. And I think that it’s time that we stop and think. Because for me, my feeling is a lot of drivers that once become driving a longer period of time, become a little lax, and get too comfortable. And people forget that there’s laws and there’s so much technology inside the car that you forget right outside your windshield, there’s highway workers, there are other drivers, there’s bicyclists, there’s motorcyclists, there are people who are exercising. There are kids that are playing. And in an instant, you could take someone’s life away. Now, what’s happening is that you have your children in the car, and they mirror our behavior. And now you’re going to set up a new generation of distracted drivers. I just think the key is really education.

This episode of the Safety Guru podcast is brought to you by Propulo Consulting, the leading safety and safety culture advisory firm. Whether you are looking to assess your safety culture, develop strategies to level up your safety performance, introduce human performance capabilities, re-energize your BBS program, enhance supervisory safety capabilities, or introduce unique safety leadership training and talent solutions. Propulo has you covered. Visit us www.propulo.com.

You touched on something there that I think is worth double-clicking on a little bit. It’s around role modeling. When you’re in a car, if you have kids, they’re watching you. They’re seeing what you’re doing when you’re driving. Right? So, I think that’s also a really important piece; it is something we can impact. We can make a difference in terms of how we show up and how we role-play a role model on something like this.

Absolutely. When I do an assembly at a high school, the first question I ask the students is: How many of you have been in the car with a friend who has been using their phone in any capacity besides Bluetooth? And at least 85% of the room raises their hand. And then I ask the same question: how many of your parents use their phones, and everybody raises their hand? And it is sad because shame on us. Our kids are in our driving school, really, for the first 16 years of their life. So, if you’re using your phone when you’re driving, how can you ever expect them not to?

Right?

We don’t realize how much we mirror our parents. I was at fault. I was teaching my oldest daughter to drive, and a stop sign was near my house. And she drove to the stop sign. She slowed down, and then she turned left. And I said, Lex, what did you do when you didn’t stop? And she looked me dead and said, oh, it’s not what you do. For years, I was driving to this Estopinal stop sign and just slowing down and turning, and she completely mirrored my behavior. So again, if I was using my phone while driving, how could I ever expect my kids not to? And it goes with everything. If there’s road rage, if you’re a road ranger, the same thing. Your kids are going to be road rangers. And it’s sad. And I say to the students, if you knew getting into your friend’s car that you were about to drive to your death, would you ever get in that car? And, of course, not. But these are the chances that you’re taking. Honestly, with kids, it’s about speaking up, peer influence, being a positive role model for you and your friends, and not using their phone or taking their phone from the driving person.

I know it’s hard to do, but it’s the only way things will stop. And many times, I think the students don’t feel that, like, oh, we don’t text and drive, but you know what? You’re scrolling through social media, or you’re making a video when you’re driving, and it’s the same thing, and it’s just sad. And again, no one ever thinks it’s not until something happens. And why will you wait for something to happen for you to change your behavior? You don’t ever want to be responsible for someone else’s death over something that is 100% preventable.

100% preventable. Even a Bluetooth piece you talked about, even on Bluetooth, still introduces a level of distraction.

Absolutely.

A lot of the research is showing that it creates an impairment that’s very similar to an alcohol impairment in terms of when you’re driving. I’ve made a conscious decision not to take calls while I’m driving. I ensure my wife is driving if I need to take a call or if she’s not driving with me. Then I’m on the side of the road. Something as simple as that. It’s not easy, it’s painful. It introduces more time in your day. But it makes a difference.

It does. If you think you could be, let’s just say you’re driving and you’re having a conversation on Bluetooth and you’re in a heated conversation, or you’re fighting with your spouse or your children, you really aren’t fully paying attention. You’re focusing on winning that fight. Right. So you could miss your exit. You could be trying to move over, and you’re in your blind spot and weren’t paying attention. And you can easily hit someone. People don’t think of those things. But this is truly what’s happening.

And I think that’s something. We owe everybody who’s working the side of the road, but we also owe to ourselves because it’s how we are aware and have situational awareness of what other drivers are doing. If somebody is veering off, it’s also ensuring we stay safe.

That’s right. Absolutely. Situational awareness is key. It really is. It’s for everyone. The driver, the passenger, people who are on the, exactly like you said, workers. It’s always looking at your surroundings and being ready, being prepared. You just never know.

You never know. And it can happen to the best of drivers. I’m sure he thought he was a good driver. I mean, you said he retired from the New York Fire Department. Probably an experienced driver by design, but it can happen to anyone.

Absolutely. And he was devastated. I mean, it destroyed his life. He was a father of six. It took us four years for us to be allowed to speak with him. But I saw him, and he came over to me and he just said, I’m so sorry. And I gave him a hug, and I said to him, I don’t hate you. And he cried and cried and cried and said, you don’t hate me. I said I don’t hate you. I know you didn’t wake up and say, I’m going to kill Patrick Mapleson. This knows. I know it was something that you didn’t know was going to happen. And I think that my brother, my sister, and I were able to free him of that, at least. And he left a message. He would always leave a message on the anniversary of my dad’s death just to let us know he was thinking about us. And not a lot of families get that. Not a lot of families get it. I’m sorry.

I think you speak to a lot of audiences, you speak to students, to kids that are starting to drive, to try to shape the right behavior of the front end, to organizations. I think this is something that needs to be addressed in terms of awareness. Like you said, education for drivers to realize how do I need to show up? But also, for organizations that have workers that are on the side of the road.

Absolutely.

It’s a serious hazard. It’s one of the hardest one to control. You can control a lot of other forms of energy, a lot of other risks. This one especially, I guess you can if you block the road and you shut down the road. But there’s a lot more risks that tend to happen. And people get comfortable, surprisingly, with the degree of risk that’s associated with it.

They do as you’re just asking that. I’m just thinking in my head that it’s just so sad when I’m driving, going through a work zone, and I see people speeding through, and they’re just right at the edge of the road. It’s just sad because everybody wants to go home. Everybody just wants to come home, and they are just inches away from not coming home. And why aren’t we giving them the respect? But you know what? It also goes both ways. If you’re a worker, how do you drive on the road? That’s what I try to explain in my presentation: it’s, again, going back to the basics. Safety isn’t just nine to five. It’s 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they must also show respect to the roadway. How do you drive? Are you that driver who gets to a red light and the person in front of you is on their phone, and the light turns green, and they’re not moving, and now you’re angry, and you’re like, come on? But then a mile down the street, now you’re that front car, and now you’re on your phone.  

You can’t have it both ways. So why can’t we all just respect each other, and all just do the right thing? Why is something so simple so hard?

Yeah, exactly. So, thank you for sharing your story with people and trying to get some awareness, both from an educational standpoint for drivers and organizations, in terms of the risk and the hazards associated with working on the side of the road. I think it’s a very powerful way to get people to stop thinking. And I encourage everybody that’s listening to really think about how do you show up when you’re on the road? How do you show up when there’s a work zone, or there is a first responder on the side of the road that is doing the work? How do you show up in those instances to protect them? And like you mentioned before, in terms of role modeling that behavior for others in the car. So, if somebody wants to get in touch with you, Karen, how can they get in touch with you?

Oh, great. My website is all4udad.com, but it’s spelled A-L-L, the number four, the letter u, dad. And yeah, you could reach me there. My email is [email protected], and I would love to hear from anyone.

Thank you so much, Karen. I appreciate you coming on the show and sharing your story.

Thank you so much. You have a great day. Stay safe.

Thank you. Stay safe.

Thank you for listening to The Safety Guru on C-suite Radio. Leave a legacy. Distinguish yourself from the past. Grow your success. Capture the hearts and minds of your teams. Elevate your safety. Like every successful athlete, top leaders continuously invest in their safety leadership with an expert coach to boost safety performance. Begin your journey at execsafetycoach.com. Come back in two weeks for the next episode with your host, Eric Michrowski. This podcast is powered by Propulo Consulting.  

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ABOUT THE GUEST

Karen Torres is a passionate advocate for road safety with over 14 years of experience as a motivational speaker. Her commitment to raising awareness about the dangers of distracted driving stems from a personal tragedy — the loss of her father, Patrick Mapleson, in a distracted driving incident. Karen has turned her pain into purpose, dedicating her life to sharing her compelling story at high schools, employee safety trainings, and corporate conferences across the nation. Karen is also a member of the Speaker’s Bureau for NY SADD (Students Against Destructive Decisions); she provides impactful presentations that aim to inspire positive change and save lives. Karen’s message is not just powerful; it’s transformative, leaving a lasting impact on audiences of all ages.

For more information: https://www.all4udad.com/

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