‘It can wait’: Lawrence woman shares a cautionary tale about texting and driving

Lawrence resident Nicole Allensworth experienced the dangers of texting while driving firsthand when in June of 2015 she caused an accident along Kansas Highway 10 that left her with traumatic brain injuries.

What Nicole Allensworth knows of June 2015 she has had to piece together from what police and her family have told her. There’s a black hole where those memories should be.

For days that summer, Allensworth said she was in a medically induced coma. Doctors kept putting her to sleep because she would wake up and jerk the medical tubes out of her body.

The morning of June 10, 2015, Allensworth weaved on Kansas Highway 10 in a construction zone as she headed east to class at Johnson County Community College. She overcorrected, crossed the center line and hit a westbound car head-on.

The accident was caused, Allensworth said, because she had been texting and driving. Now she wants to share her story in the hopes of dissuading drivers from using their phones on the road.

“It can wait,” she said of whatever text messages might be coming and going on the road. “If anything, when you think of texting and driving, think of me.”

The obvious danger with texting while driving is the distraction.

Road safety, of course, “requires the full attention of the driver,” Douglas County Sheriff’s Office Sgt. LeRonda Roome said.

Lawrence Police Department spokeswoman Kim Murphree agrees.

“On the road, a driver may encounter sudden events that require immediate action, such as; a child running into the roadway, or another car pulling into a wrong lane …” she wrote in an email. “Texting while driving diverts the driver’s focus … A driver cannot see the road, comprehend what is being seen, make correct decisions …while texting.”

After the accident, the westbound driver, Yusif Abdulhakeem, of Merriam, was driven by ambulance to Overland Park Regional Medical Center, where he was soon discharged. Allensworth, however, was flown by helicopter to the University of Kansas hospital, where she was held in intensive care for many days.

“I’m just thankful I didn’t kill him,” she said. “Because I would have been haunted for the rest of my life.”

These days, Allensworth has trouble recalling all of the injuries that she suffered in the crash. For sure, a number of bones were broken in her face, and her tailbone was broken.

Allensworth walks with the help of a cane she uses because of a hip injury that wasn’t caused, but was worsened, by the crash.

“I fall easily,” she said, shaking her head.

The most significant injury, however, was to her brain.

A Kelly green banner, tattooed on her ankle, signifies the traumatic brain injury Allensworth suffered in the crash. Now she is forced to live with the reality of that injury on a daily basis.

The brain injury gives Allensworth trouble with language, and work with a cognitive therapist is required, she said. One time in a grocery store she forgot what to call a zucchini. At other times she’ll refer to mowing the lawn as “shaving the lawn.”

Where she once excelled in calculus and trigonometry, Allensworth said she now has difficulty with simple algebra. She didn’t attend her community college graduation because she was unsure if she’d be able to stand or keep her composure during the ceremony.

Acknowledging the traumatic brain injury has proved difficult, Allensworth said. Her memory of the accident, of her recovery and even of the week before the crash is gone. She had to learn once more how to climb stairs and how to shower herself, she said.

“I’ll always be a survivor of it,” she said of the brain injury. And now, she’ll always be more susceptible to additional brain injuries, such as concussions.

Not only is texting while driving unsafe; it’s also illegal. The law in Kansas actually applies to more than just text messages, Roome said. It’s illegal to “write, send or read a written communication” using a wireless device, she said.

This means emails, tweets, Facebook posts and more are also off limits.

Those caught could face a $60 fine and court costs, Roome said.

But Allensworth said the real risk is injury — whether it’s a single-vehicle accident or multiple drivers are involved.

“Put the phone down,” she said. “Don’t think of yourself, but the people around you. You could kill them.”

Already her teenage daughters, Justice and Liberty, know not to text and drive, Allensworth said. Her outlook also affects the way she travels and how she interacts with friends and relatives.

“I won’t get in the car with someone who is messing with their phone,” she said. “I even have to get on my mom about it. I’ll say, ‘You already almost lost me.'”

Allensworth said she hopes to share her story with her daughter’s school class and she’s also putting together a short presentation, which she’ll pitch to the Kansas Department of Transportation.

In addition, Allensworth said she wants to speak with driver’s education classes.

Both Roome and Murphree said their respective law enforcement agencies work to tell drivers of the dangers of using a phone while driving. Though neither could say if firsthand stories, such as Allensworth’s, are more effective in spreading that message.

Currently Allensworth does not work. She’s on disability for her injury and a litany of additional medical problems she’s endured. In her townhome on Lawrence’s north side is a small menagerie of animal companions.

“They’re my therapy — gives me a reason to get up,” she said. “I’ve got to take care of my animals.”

No cats, she laughs.

“I’m not going to be the cat lady,” she said.

Because of the crash, insurance payments are too high for Allensworth to afford to drive, she said. This will be the case until three years have passed.

On that third year, for her July birthday, Allensworth plans to treat herself to a car — one she won’t operate while on her cellphone.