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Bonnie Raffaele: A mother dedicating her life to preventing distracted driving car accidents

October 17, 2016 by Steven M. Gursten

Our attorneys salute Bonnie: After her daughter Kelsey was tragically killed, Bonnie helped to enact “Kelsey’s Law.” Here’s her courageous story and more on the great advocacy work she’s doing


Bonnie Raffaele is the true definition of a hero.

After her 17-year-old daughter, Kelsey, was tragically killed in a car accident involving using her cell phone, Bonnie, of Sault Ste. Marie, MI, became a world-renowned advocate for preventing distracted driving crashes. She pushed Michigan legislators to pass Michigan’s teen driving law, coined “Kelsey’s Law” in 2013, and she hasn’t stopped since.

Several of us have had the honor of getting to know Bonnie Raffaele personally, as she partnered with our Michigan Auto Law attorneys in creating our Kelsey’s Law Scholarship: Stop Distracted Driving Contest. The scholarship is designed to get teens to persuade their peers to stop using cell phones and texting behind the wheel (we just announced the incredible  scholarship winners last week).

Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds in the United States, ahead of all other types of injury, disease, or violence, according to the latest statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The NHTSA estimates about 10% of these crashes are caused by distracted driving.

But, as our attorneys know from our own cases, the number of motor vehicle crashes caused by texting and driving and using cell phones is likely much higher.  There is under-reporting by law enforcement at most auto accident scenes and unless there’s a fatality or catastrophic injury, police almost never check cell phones to see if distracted driving played a role in a crash.

As Michigan Teen Driver Safety Week kicks off today, I thought this would be the perfect time to sit down with Bonnie, get to know her better, and then spread the word about this absolutely wonderful woman’s work.

I’m posting our interview below.

Q: Tell me about Kelsey.
A. Kelsey was so pretty and sweet. She had a heart bigger than the universe. She is a twin to her sister Courtney. Seven years ago in January, she was talking on her cell phone while driving on a street near our home in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. She was passing and misjudged the distance. She ended up passing the car, but over corrected, went into the path of an SUV and clipped a snowbank. She had just gotten her Level 2 Driver’s license and was a couple months away from graduation. Over 2,000 people came to her wake.

It’s a call no mother wants to think about or even receive. Her best friend was behind her. When her best friend called me hysterically crying, we still thought because it was a street so close to our home, that it was only a minor accident. We (my husband Ronnie and I) drove to the accident site and saw Kelsey in the car. She had passed. There was nothing we could do.

But I don’t want people to remember Kelsey for the way she passed away. The way Kelsey lived is what’s worth talking about. She really did have a heart bigger than the universe! Just the other day, I received a photo of this blanket Kelsey had signed. She had lost a close friend to cancer and did this to bring awareness to the cause. We didn’t know she signed it and was helping with cancer advocacy. She did things like that all the time. Not for the glory, but to really help people.

Kelsey Raffaele scholarship distracted driving, image

Q. Tell me how you went about getting Kelsey’s Law passed.
A. That was tough. I contacted Sen. Howard Walker (R-Traverse City) and said, “This is what I want. Will you do it?” We got it passed through the Senate rather quickly and it sat in the House for months. I testified before the Senate, the House, but the Speaker at the time didn’t like it and said it was common sense not to use your phone.

So I had a press conference at the steps of the capitol with a ton of people. It ended up not getting passed out of House Transportation Committee. But during lame duck session, the very last day at 1 a.m., they excused it from having to be voted on and voted in the House and it passed, to then be signed by the governor.

The bill number was HB 756 and when it passed into law, it became PA 592. The girls were born in May of 1992. It gives me chills every time I think about it.

Q. Can you please remind readers about Kelsey’s Law?
A. In 2013, Kelsey’s Law passed in Michigan. It makes it illegal for teen drivers to use cell phones by prohibiting cell phone use by teen drivers with a Level 2 graduated license. This is when 16-year-olds can drive a motor vehicle without an adult in the state of Michigan. A teen driver who violates this law by using a cell phone would receive a civil infraction.

Q. And since then you haven’t stopped! Tell me about what you’ve been doing to help prevent teen distracted driving car accidents.
A. Heck no I haven’t stopped! Right now we’re in the midst of a Subway sticker campaign, where we got 20 of the sandwich shops in northern Michigan to put stickers on the subs, with this message about distracted driving:


I work a lot with the National Safety Council (NSC) in the advocacy department. This means I travel around the country and I speak at some of the conferences. I’m also the leader of the Michigan Teen Safe Driving Coalition, sponsored by NSC. In this role, we do a lot of work with Office of Highway Traffic Safety Planning and work with the Michigan State Police and Secretary of State. We do a lot of things. For instance, we received a grant, where we created pamphlets that lay out the steps of the Graduated Drivers Licensing Eligibility Requirements that’s easy for the parents to read and understand. We did parents night, too; a video and presentation that we created as a group was presented to groups of parents and their teen drivers.

I have the KDR challenge, which stands for Kids Driving Responsibly and is Kelsey’s initials (Kelsey Dawn), where I speak at schools. Really if there’s anything that can help bring awareness to distracted driving for the teens, I will do it.

Here’s my blog and website, which outlines a lot of the work I do: Bonnieraffaele.com
www.thekdrchallenge.com . People from all over the world share things on social media and reach out to me. It’s really quite amazing and humbling.

Q. What is your message to teens this week?
A. My message is, don’t be distracted. For just this one week, put your phone away. It will become a habit. Every time if you’re driving and you hear that phone go off. Think of Kelsey. Do you want to end up like her? And have your mom and dad end up like me, at a loss, broken hearted and forcing yourself to get out of bed every day?

Q. What is your message to parents this week?
A. I tell parents you have to practice, practice, practice with your teens when they’re getting their drivers licenses and when they’re in drivers ed. That is huge.

And then on the other side of things…spend every single moment that you can with your children. I’ve learned things in life. Now, if there’s something silly that everybody freaks out over, we have a different perspective on it. There’s nothing more important than your family.

(Stay tuned for my blog post this week that will include powerful talking points to help teach your kids about the dangers of distracted driving.)

Q. How do you think Kelsey would react to all of this work you’re doing right now for her and other teen drivers?
A. She would be shocked. She would be happy. She would be honored that everybody is thinking of her and she would be so happy that everybody is rallying around her mom to help save lives. We were best friends. I do it for the kids.

Q. What would you like to see in terms of distracted driving laws in Michigan?
A. There’s a bill right now by Rep. Howrylak. You wrote about it last week. I appreciate the effort in getting a distracted driving law on the books for Michigan. But that bill should include hands free devices. No one should be on the phone whatsoever, because then more tickets can be written and people will listen more. The fine should be really high. It’s a cognitive thing. It’s not a hand thing; it’s your brain!

I want to make a bumper sticker that says, “You may not value your life, but I value mine. Put your phone away!” These accidents are all very preventable. You just need to get off your phone and pay attention to your driving.

National Teen Driver Safety Week runs October 16-22. It’s dedicated to raising awareness and seeking solutions to preventable teen deaths and injuries on the road. It began in 2007 after a series of tragic crashes involving Pennsylvania high school students. Get involved at your school or in your community by sharing safety messages with your peers.

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