The names of four young women who were killed by distracted drivers, represented by empty chairs and white flowers. Photo Courtesy of Doug Shupe.

A row of empty chairs, with the exception of a single white rose and photos on placards, was a silent and symbolic audience for Emani Lawrence and others describing the pain and horror that can be inflicted in an instant by distracted driving.

The roses and photos in chairs represented people like Los Angeles sisters Amy and Marleen Lorenzo, ages 12 and 14, who were on their way to school and in a crosswalk with the green light when they were struck and dragged several feet by a big-rig truck that had made a right turn into the intersection. The driver later admitted he was viewing a music video, and never saw the girls.

April is National Distracted Driving Awareness Month. It is why Lawrence, a San Diego resident and accident survivor, was speaking in Los Angeles on Monday, April 4, and reminding the public about the importance of keeping  all of your attention on the road.

A row of empty chairs adorned with white flowers and placards of people who were killed by distracted drivers. Photo Courtesy of Doug Shupe.

“I think people really need to understand the dangers of distracted driving and understand how easy it is to take a life or injure someone,” Lawrence said.

“I know everyone uses their phone for every single thing we do, like to look up something immediately or whatever it may be. And it seems so easy to do behind the wheel but it’s so dangerous.”

The message is also timely because more motorists — whether for spring break, family vacations or summer travel — are expected on the nation’s streets and highways in the coming weeks, in part because many of the mandates and restrictions on restaurant dining or attending indoor and outdoor events that have been in place the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic are being removed across the country.

According to a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration report, nine people are killed every day due to a distracted driver. In 2019, approximately 424,000 people were injured and 31,000 were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver in the US. About one in five who died in crashes that year were not in vehicles. 

And a recent AAA travel survey found that 52 percent of Americans plan to take at least one road trip this summer, and 42 percent said they would not change their plans, even with higher gas prices.  

“We know people just have that urge to travel again … but we just need to get this message out,” said Doug Shupe, AAA corporate communications manager.  

“We want to make sure that people are staying focused on the road, not just during the month of April, but really every day of the year.”

Grandmother Killed

Linda Doyle and her granddaughter, Emani Lawrence. Doyle was killed in 2008 when a distracted driver T-boned her car. Photo Courtesy of Emani Lawrence.

Lawrence, 26, a paralegal and aspiring attorney, has suffered family loss and her own physical trauma in separate distracted driving accidents.

In 2008, her grandmother Linda Doyle was killed in Oklahoma when a driver — who was talking on his phone — ran a red light, T-boning Doyle’s car on the driver’s side.

Lawrence was 13 years old at the time and living in Texas with her mother, Jennifer Smith. They initially had little information about the accident. By the time they found the hospital Doyle was airlifted to, they were told she had passed away. 

“It just felt like the biggest pain,” Lawrence said. “She was such a rock in our family, and the last time we saw her alive was on my birthday. So every year on my birthday, it’s bittersweet. It’s my birthday, but it’s also the last time we saw her, so it’s just painful.” 

The family loss has drastically influenced how both Lawrence and her mother view distracted driving. Smith founded the StopDistractions.org, a nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating distracted driving. It networks and brings together victims of distracted driving and provides educational resources to the public. 

“She took such a tragedy in our family and did something to save other people,” Lawrence said. “It’s amazing what she does. I look up to her so much. She’s like my role model in every sense and my biggest cheerleader.” 

When she’s driving, Lawrence ensures her phone does not distract her by leaving it on silent or turning on the Do Not Disturb setting.  

She said she sometimes unconsciously reaches for her phone when it goes off, but reminds herself that it isn’t worth it. She encourages her friends not to use their phones while driving. 

“I tell them my story and tell them how dangerous it is,” Lawrence said. “And then whenever they slam on their brakes because they almost hit someone, I say, ‘My point exactly, put it away.’”

Her Own Accident 

Lawrence’s second experience with distracted driving occurred last year when she was in San Diego visiting a friend and studying for her bar exam.

This time, she was directly involved. 

She said a food delivery driver turned in front of her in an intersection, and Lawrence crashed into the passenger side. Although Lawrence was able to walk away from the accident, her car was totaled.

Lawrence said the other driver was looking at her phone when the collision occurred. 

“My head had a lot of trauma … even now I have some injuries,” Lawrence said. “I had some injuries on my arms, my hands. My neck and back were really messed up. Where my seatbelt was, that whole area was really swollen.” 

Lawrence spent a day in a hospital before being discharged. She retook her bar exam this February and will receive her results in May. She has filed a lawsuit against the other driver and the company.

Having already lost a loved one to distracted driving, she said it was crazy that she was now involved in one as well. 

“That message, that phone call, none of it is worth the life that you can and eventually will take,” Lawrence said. “It’s dangerous. People need to know that, and no one is invincible to it. We can all become victims. Look at me, my family was twice.” 

For more information on distracted driving, visit http://stopdistractions.org.