DARIEN — Whitney Ball’s former career in international relations at one time found the Darien resident in war-torn parts of the world working to pick up the pieces.

She holds two master’s degrees — one in international human rights law and the other in developmental studies — and has worked with former child soldiers in Sierra Leone and refugees from around the world at the International Institute of Connecticut in Bridgeport.

Although she opted out the grueling work in favor of a more conventional career and a family, Ball is still intensely dedicated to instituting change on the home front.

Since the summer of 2015, Ball has overseen Drop It and Drive Darien, a nonprofit that is committed to reducing the ubiquitous problem of distracted driving. She met with the Darien News earlier this week to discuss the genesis of the organization, her efforts to engage the community and to explain how her past work has informed her most recent venture.

How did Drop It and Drive Darien begin?

It was last August. It had been brewing for a couple years because of anecdotal evidence of this expanding epidemic. More than anything I thought this is so frustrating that, especially in a town like Darien where we’re all community-minded, to see role models and parents in the car with their kids doing really flagrant things. It’s so preventable and I think that this frustrated me more than anything. This is something that we not even ought to know better, but do know better. The statistics are pretty black and white. We know it’s a bad idea. And we know that there are these incredible risks. So I thought, ‘What is visible? What can service somebody by promoting awareness and also making a personal pledge?’ So I made magnets.

It’s creating awareness, and it’s also taking ownership of an issue, especially in our community. We’re owning this issue for Darien.

I think this campaign is a little different than most because it’s not responding to a tragedy; it’s trying to get ahead of one.

How has the community responded to the magnets? Are you starting to see the magnets around town?

A lot. I think about 2,000 of them, at least, have been distributed. The Darien Police Association bought 1,000 of them at cost and they were giving them out with their May fundraiser. The Darien police have been incredible. They’re on all the Darien police squad cars and have been since August. Immediately when I brought it to them to see what they thought, they took it up.

Also, the first selectman and state Rep. Terrie Wood have just completely taken this under their wing as an issue. I can’t state enough how much support there’s been.

In what ways are you expanding from the magnet campaign and further engaging the community?

We’ve run various contests. In November, there was a contest for the high schoolers to design an alternate version of the magnet. It really helped that one of the design courses at the high school picked it up as one of their class projects. And that came out of a focus group that I had with a bunch of different student leaders.

We also did a poster contest for elementary school and a comic book contest for middle school.

I did a limited run on Drop It and Drive CT magnets and wrote a letter that went to all state representatives and state senators explaining what it is and if they are interested in something similar for their town, to contact us. Terrie Wood, the local rep, hand-delivered all of those to Hartford.

A private donor, a business leader in town, helped pay for a project where we did window clings. We did 300 of those and sent those along with a letter and a sample workplace pledge to encourage people to have a little more flexibility and a little more responsibility when it comes to the workplace and their cell phones. Don’t expect someone to answer every single call right then and there. Give a little leeway so they can pull over or to have the passenger take the call instead. I want to start inserting some of that awareness into the workplace. It’s not just about living in Darien and making it safe; it’s about working in Darien and making it safe.

How have kids, primarily young drivers, reacted to the campaign?

The focus group and the high school kids I’ve met with are generally saying the problem is greater with their parents than with them. Most of them said their parents are doing it. They’re also saying that in the first year of driving it doesn’t happen much at all; I think maybe because if you’re driving under 18 you’re not allowed to have any electronic device, even hands-free. I know, at least with the focus group, they knew friends who did it but they typically started to do it as they became more confident drivers, which isn’t surprising.

The driving schools do a really good job, too. We weren’t educated. Cell phones existed but they weren’t a problem when I was taking driver’s ed. So now, Fresh Green Light, which has also been really supportive, they’re really hitting it a lot harder. In many ways, even if they’re not necessarily always doing the right thing, they do know the statistics.

I have kids. They’re younger, but I know that my son probably won’t be able to fully, biologically understand risk until he’s in his 20s. I don’t think most kids do.

Is the problem of distracted driving getting worse or is progress being made?

This is where I’m not sure. I mean, technology gets easier and easier and people say that technology will be the answer. But, interestingly, in talking to the teenagers they didn’t see that. They said it has to be a change in behavior. It has to be a change in how we view the issue. And that’s probably true because right now the technology is making people more distracted. Even hands-free, I believe AAA determined that it can be up to 27 seconds that you can be distracted after you’ve used a voice command on your car. That’s a really long time.

So I don’t know if there’s going to be the answer unless we’re completely locked out of using our phones all together. I have an app now which senses motion and sends calls straight to voice mail, so I don’t hear it. I think if people do that, not hearing the text go off, not feeling like I need to react, it’s good.

For me, it’s about reclaiming that space in the car and reclaiming that little bit of time where it’s OK for us to be focused on driving. Multitasking is apparently a myth. There’s an MIT professor Sherry Turkle who’s done 25 years of communications work ... and said unitasking is the future because they’ve kind of debunked multitasking as not even cognitively possible.

You’ve said that there’s a link between your previous work in international relief and your current work on Drop It and Drive. Can you explain the connection?

My background was in international relief and development, and my specialty was postwar reconciliation. There is a weird segue in that both are all about community cohesion. Also, there are problems in the world that are intractable and really difficult to solve, and there are deaths that we can’t prevent. Then there are those that should be 100 percent preventable. So that’s what I think is so frustrating, too — being on the road with my kids feeling endangered and also feeling I shouldn’t have to be.

justin.papp@scni.com; dariennewsonline.com