Under rainy skies, around 150 people came to Purgatory Creek Park in Eden Prairie to run, walk and remember those who lost their lives to distracted driving at the 12th annual Raksha Vigil and 5K Run, held by the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation on Aug. 10.

Nine days after Minnesota’s new hands-free driving law went into effect, the mood was bittersweet but victorious.

Vijay Dixit, of Eden Prairie, created the Shreya R. Dixit Memorial Foundation in honor of his daughter, Shreya, who died in a car crash caused by a distracted driver in 2007.

“It opens old wounds of losing Shreya,” he said. “It hurts, but at the same time it’s comforting.”

The race’s footprint was bigger this year than in years past, he added. The Minnesota State Patrol had an informational tent for the first time and passed out tools and pamphlets to inform and help with distracted driving.

Lt. Tiffani Nielson, who has been with the West Metro division of the State Patrol for 15 years, has seen the results of distracted driving first hand, noting distracted driving is a contributing cause in one out of four crashes with injuries or fatalities.

“Obviously, we want people to drive safe, we don’t want to go to car accidents,” she said.

The State Patrol recently ordered 7,000 vent clips, which attach smart phones to a car’s air vent and help a driver stay hands-free. Nielson handed out dozens of them at the race.

Suvarna Nallamalli is doing another kind of outreach. The Eden Prairie High School graduate founded the Eden Prairie High School Distraction Free Driving Club a few years ago and is now the foundation’s youth outreach director. She’ll be helping run a daylong summer camp on Aug. 14 for elementary school students to learn how to intervene if they see a relative using a phone or being distracted while driving.

The peer-to-peer approach is what works for teens. When an adult tells you to put your phone down while driving, “it’s just another person telling you what to do with your life,” but a friend or teammate asking you to stop texting carries more weight, Nallamalli said.

When Nallamalli left EPHS for the University of Minnesota, her younger brother, Abhi, took up the mantle of club president. She’s continuing to work on traffic safety − at the University’s Center for Transportation Studies, and with the traffic safety organization Toward Zero Deaths − but she doesn’t see it as a career path.

“This is solely my passion,” Nallamalli explained.

As walkers strode around the lake, many reflected on the unsafe habits they’ve seen on the road. Pamela McCauley has even seen drivers reading behind the wheel, she said. She hoped the event would raise awareness of how a single driver can change someone’s life, or end it, forever.

“I see it all the time,” she said. “I recognize how scary it is.”

Venkata Vajhala took the opportunity to think about her own habits. She’s taken steps to demonstrate safe driving for her teenage daughter, she said.

“I just want to set an example,” Vajhala said.

Salim Omar, who invited Vajhala to the race, knows Dixit personally.

“Thank God for Vijay and his campaign,” Omar said. “That family, with their sorrow and the loss of their daughter, have brought so many good things to the city.”

Dixit sees the foundation, and its mission, as a way that Shreya continues to change the world.

“She has, in the last 11 years, saved thousands,” he said. “I see, in that cause, Shreya’s soul. This is what she left behind for us.”

Over 60,000 Minnesota crashes involved distracted driving between 2014 and 2018, according to the Minnesota Department of Public Safety − nearly 20% of car crashes in the state.

In 2013, a texting-while-driving law went into effect in Minnesota. In its first year, 2,177 citations were issued. In 2018, 9,545 citations were issued.

On Aug. 1 of this year, a law that prohibits holding your phone in your hand while driving went into effect. During the first week of the new law, the Minnesota State Patrol issued about 500 citations and warnings, the agency said in a tweet on Aug. 8.

Eden Teller is the multimedia reporter for Eden Prairie News. She's passionate about fostering productive conversations and empowering communities. When she's not reporting, she can be found reading a book, on a hike or tackling home improvement projects.

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