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Julie Garner

by Betty Bailey

Hunter Garner (Julie Garner (Julie Garner))
Hunter Garner (Julie Garner (Julie Garner))

Sixteen-year-old-Hunter Garner was a popular teen. Friends say he had a dry wit, a creative mind and a great sense of humor. Like far too many of his contemporaries, Hunter's life was cut short in a distracted driving accident. It was June 10, 2007, the beginning of summer.  School had been out only a week when the Garner family got the call that Hunter had been in an accident.  He had been riding in a good friend's car.  Neither boy survived.

Word spread fast in the small town of Fredericksburg, Virginia.  By the time Hunter's family had left the hospital, the community had gathered together and opened the school to hold a vigil.

"We literally went straight from the hospital to the vigil," said Hunter's mother Julie Garner.  "One by one, these 16 and 17-year-old kids got up there and started sharing stories.  They were poignant, touching, funny.  They were amazing.  These young people have the most beautiful, poignant, voices ever and they can talk to each other in ways adults can't," said Garner. 

The vigil sparked an idea.  Garner, along with Hunter's father Lowell, and sister Alexandra, decided to get young people involved in finding a solution to the growing problem of distracted driving.  They wanted a project that would honor Hunter's memory and help save other teens from a similar fate. Car crashes had become the number one killer of teens in the United States and she wanted to change that statistic. 

The Garners created Project Yellow Light and offered a scholarship for a student who could make the most compelling video to promote safe driving.  The idea was simple; so was the slogan: Make a video.  Win a scholarship.  Save a life.

Hunter Garner (Project Yellow Light (Julie Garner))
Hunter Garner (Project Yellow Light (Julie Garner))

Project Yellow Light holds separate contests for high school and college students but the task is the same. to create a short video that promotes safe driving habits by pointing out the dangers of texting and driving. 

"If teens talk to each other about how losing someone close, or the prospect of losing someone, has impacted their lives, then we will start a vital conversation," said Garner.  "Teens can talk to their peers in a voice and in a tone that they will listen to and respond to in ways that adults cannot."

A $5,000 higher education scholarship is awarded to the first place winners.  Second place winners will receive $2,000 and third place winners will get $1,000.  In addition, the winning PSAs are distributed to more than 1,500 television stations in the United States. 

From Project Yellow Light's humble beginnings at Riverbend High, where Hunter attended school, news of the program quickly spread across the nation.  In 2011, the Advertising Council, the American non-profit that produces and promotes public service announcements (PSAs) offered to distribute the videos to television stations across the United States.  In 2012, Mazda Motor Corporation came forward to donate money for scholarships. 

Mazda found us while they were looking for an anti-texting program and liked what we were doing and offered a small grant," Garner said.  "They wanted to partner with someone who was doing something important that related to them.  We have all that muscle now.  They gave us the muscle and the infrastructure to grow."

Garner knows her group faces a difficulty task.  Cell phones, MP3 players and other electronics are a way of life and people are in constant contact with texts. "It's the hardest thing ever," she said.  "You hear that sound and it's difficult to not pay attention to it."

However, she is confident that the best place to start the grassroots movement is with young people.

"Once they start realizing it's their friends who are getting killed, they will take ownership," she said.  "It's just going to happen because these guys are going to make it happen.  They're on a mission.  It's going to reach critical mass and they're going to ‘get it.’   All of a sudden, it's going to be cool to drive carefully because the youth will make it cool to drive safely."

Project Yellow light works with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the safety arm of the United States Department of Transportation.  She hopes to see the project embraced in other countries. 

"I want to see it grow to other countries," she said.  "It's (distracted driving) not just a fact in the U.S., it's a fact across the globe."

Garner’s goal is, "More sponsors, more funding, in order to hand out more scholarships to save more lives," she said.  "Where there's a will, there's a way.  I don't know how it's going to happen.  I'm not going to worry about that."

Page created on 1/15/2015 7:00:29 PM

Last edited 1/5/2017 5:04:39 PM

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Project Yellow Light - Project Yellow Light is a scholarship competition designed to bring about change.
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