Put It Down

 Life is precious, yet many of us endanger others daily by driving distracted. 

That’s the message Norman resident Shawn Irie has been sharing across the state since his wife, Linda, 50, and their two grandchildren, Brooklynn Newville, 9, and Jace Newville, 5, were killed by what the authorities believe was a distracted driver six months ago.

“I’m trying to make some kind of good out of this horror that is our new reality,” Irie said.

Irie has learned that about nine people are killed and more than 1,000 injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver daily in the United States. Distracted driving is driving while doing another activity, and one of the most distracting activities, texting, is believed to have been the cause of the wreck that took Irie’s loved ones.

Through his website, putitdown.live, Irie makes himself available for speaking engagements and promotes the Put it Down golf tournament coming Sept. 30 to benefit distracted driving awareness education.

“Shawn Irie has given his heart to kids across Oklahoma to help motivate them to not drive distracted. He’s talked to about 800 kids in the last three weeks through the Oklahoma Challenge project,” said Linda Terrell, Challenge director.

The Oklahoma Challenge Project is a distracted driving prevention program sponsored by the Oklahoma Highway Office and State Farm.

“We’re training these kids about distracted driving, but that’s not all we do,” Terrell said. “We’re training these kids to go back and share the message teen-to-teen across Oklahoma. That’s what will change behavior.”

Terrell said research shows peer encouragement and education works to change behavior.

“These kids have grown up with cell phones and, basically, we’re all guilty of what we’re talking about,” Irie said. “If I can reach into their hearts and [help them] care about the people they’re on the roadway with, it will make a difference.”

Everyone has driven distracted by something, some time or other, he said. Irie drives hands-free now and, as someone who travels a lot in his job, he’s seen a lot of dangerous driving.

“It doesn’t take a special app,” he said. “It takes us, as individuals, caring and making sure that complete strangers get home. We need to pay attention.”

Terrell said he brings the car his wife and grandchildren were killed in to schools for a visual illustration of how deadly distracted driving can be. It’s an act of incredible courage on Irie’s part because it hurts every time he looks at that car, every time he tells the story of his family’s loss.

“I think, for them, just to see the car will give them motivation,” said Shanee Newville, mother of Jace and Brooklynn and Linda’s daughter.

Shanee was especially close to her mother; the two women ran a photography business together. She hasn’t looked at the car since the wreck, but she knows it took more than an hour to extract her children. Getting the call, driving to the scene of the collision was the hardest thing she’s ever done.

“I just screamed and cried and couldn’t open my eyes, just praying all the way there,” Shanee said.

Her husband had to drive.

On the scene, with the Oklahoma Highway Patrol, they described her son, Jace, to her by the color of his hair to confirm the death. Her daughter was identifed only by a pink Converse shoe.

Lincoln County District Attorney’s Office was expected to file manslaughter II charges Monday.

Newville said Noah Waldo Alexander DeDear was driving an F-350 truck with a brush guard into it when he hit her mother’s SUV.

Traffic had stopped on the turnpike near Wellston due to a brush fire, but Newville said a 320-page report on the collision indicates DeDear should have been able to stop.

Irie said the burden of grief is even worse for his in-laws, who lost another daughter years ago when she was murdered. No one has ever paid for that crime, he said. Now, he’s afraid DeDear, who was 17 at the time of the crash, won’t be charged as an adult.

“Our family has suffered and suffered and suffered and there doesn’t seem to be any justice,” Irie said.

Despite that, Irie wants to be the kind of person who changes the world for the better, rather than someone who acts out of anger.

He has seen an incredible outpouring of support from the community for his family, with hundreds attending the funerals.

“I don’t have any ill will toward Noah, who killed my family. We’ve all made mistakes,” Irie said. “But the fact is that he’s been completely unremorseful, and he hasn’t apologized and his family hasn’t apologized.”

Working to educate people on the dangers of distracted driving won’t bring his family back, but it’s all he can do for now.

“I’m doing this because I don’t want them to be a statistic,” he said. “I don’t know if I’m doing the right thing, but I’m doing something. Pain changes you in all kinds of ways.

“I vowed to be more like [Linda] and less like me, because when her sister was murdered, that kind of pain changed her.”

Irie said when Linda lost her sister, she no longer cared about money and always put family first ahead of material possessions.

“She knew what was important,” he said.