Kelson Vaillancourt loved birds and plants and everything that was living or growing.
"My brother," says Loren Vaillancourt, "taught me that every living thing, no matter how small, is beautiful."
On May 20, 2009, Kelson had just finished his junior year in college and was on his way to count waterfowl as part of an internship for the Fish & Wildlife Service. He never made it to the site. His co-worker was driving distracted and drove into oncoming traffic. Their pickup was struck by a tractor-trailer. The driver was killed instantly; Kelson died the next day.
Today, Loren, the reigning Miss South Dakota, tells Kelson's story in the latest video from our "Faces of Distracted Driving" series.
"For a long time," Loren says, "we couldn't laugh. I couldn't even sleep in my own room because it was next to his and I couldn't stand the silence."
When you watch her tell her story, you can see that Kelson's loss continues to take its toll.
And Loren has done exactly that. Since earning the Miss South Dakota crown in 2010, she has been speaking regularly to schools and organizations about the dangers of distracted driving.
Beyond educating drivers, Loren has testified in the South Dakota legislature in support of a texting ban. She also works to empower passengers:
"No matter who you are, young or old, if the driver of your vehicle is texting and driving or doing anything that's distracting, speak up. Tell them how concerned you are for your safety, and theirs."
In addition to raising awareness directly, Loren is helping South Dakota schools continue her work. With State Farm's sponsorship, Loren has helped South Dakota schools get grants totaling $10,000 for distracted driving awareness programs.
Now, she is beginning to take her safety campaign to the nation. In January, she made distracted driving her platform in the Miss America pageant. And yesterday she joined us at our launch of the DOT-Consumer Reports safety partnership. She also told her story on CBS' The Early Show.
Look, in 2009, 5,500 people were killed in distraction-related crashes, and 450,000 were injured. And we believe these figures are only the tip of the iceberg because not all police departments collect this data. But behind these numbers are people--mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, children and friends--whose lives have been turned completely upside down by this deadly epidemic.
And, while the Department of Transportation has been on a rampage to end distracted driving for nearly two years, we can't do it alone.
We need strong advocates like Loren Vaillancourt. We need parents to educate their young drivers. And we need you to set an example by putting away your phone and other devices when you get behind the wheel.