RICHMOND, Va. -- As crashes involving teen drivers continued to rise in the state and region, one Virginia mom is spearheading a nationwide effort to save lives on the road.
"All the time. Think about him all the time," said Julie Garner, a mom of two from Spotsylvania County. "In fact, this necklace is interesting because he loved the ocean."
With a piece of him around her neck and a photo by her side, Garner remembered her 16-year-old fun-loving son.
"He had a great dry wit. Just tons of friends," said Garner.
She later recalled the moment her world stopped.
"When Hunter died. You know, I died. I literally died." Garner said. "It is just pure hell. It’s a mother's worst nightmare. It was hard enough to breathe, much less get out of bed most days,"
On June 10, 2007, around 11 p.m., Garner said she and her husband received a call from a D.C. trauma center.
"And I knew right then and there he was gone. I knew it. It was like somebody had taken their fist and thrust it into my gut. I mean, I knew it. I was literally bowled over in pain."
Hunter had been killed in a car crash.
Janet Brooking, Executive Director with Drive Smart Virginia, said it was a scenario playing out far too often.
"Car crashes are the number one killer of our teens," said Brooking
She added that fatal crashes involving a teen driver in the Richmond region had continued to increase, with 13 reported in 2019, 15 in 2020 and 24 so far in 2021.
"So, it's up to nine from last year already," Brooking said. "And the year's not even out."
Brooking said that number speaks to crashes 'involving a teen driver,' which meant the deceased could be any age, but at least one driver was a teen. She said that 27 teens were killed in crashes statewide in 2020, which was up 8 percent from 2019, according to the DMV.
For Garner, those numbers were more than statistics.
"He never got to have his senior prom, graduate, go to college, have a girlfriend," Garner said.
She now made it her mission to keep other teens from meeting the same fate.
Shortly after Hunter was killed, Garner said she and her family began Project Yellow Light. It's a scholarship competition, that in 2010 went national, reaching thousands across the country.
"So, we feel like there’s nobody better than the kids themselves to talk to each other about this important topic and try to convince themselves to make a difference and maybe find a cure for this problem," Garner said.
Students participating in the competition are asked to submit a video, radio spot, or billboard design warning of the dangers of distracted driving.
Garner said the winners of the competition receive thousands in scholarship funds and are announced each year in Times Square. Their work is then broadcast to the nation.
Garner believed Project Yellow Light was saving lives and hoped to bring more awareness.
"You never think it’s going to happen to you. You know? And it does. And I'm living proof," said Garner. "And so, it just continues to be a problem and it’s sad, but our work is not done."
Both Garner and Brooking emphasized that parents also played a crucial role in keeping their teens safe, by talking to them and emphasizing the importance of safe driving.
"They need to make sure that they, that teens are absolutely not using their phone while they're driving. They need to make sure that that teens understand to follow the rules of the road and the applicable laws," Brooking said. "It's also very important for parents to be an active participant in the team driving process when they're learning to drive."
October 17 through 23 was National Teen Driver Safety Week.
Brooking said for the last two years in Virginia, there were more teens killed in October than any other month in the Commonwealth.
"So, for whatever reason, it's probably due to daylight savings time, it's getting darker earlier, kids are getting settled back into school. You know, for that reason, we're just having a lot more teens killed on our roadways in October," Brooking said.
This year’s Project Yellow Light competition kicks off on October 31. Those looking to apply or learn more about the scholarship competition can click here.