This year marks the 10th anniversary of the partnership between the Ad Council and Project Yellow Light, an organization that combats distracted driving through student-created advertising. Distracted driving is deadly; according to data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 26,004 people died in crashes involving a distracted driver between 2012-2019. Our latest Champion for Good, Project Yellow Light founder Julie Garner, talked to us about her very personal reason for founding the organization, what she’s learned along the way, and why this particular moment—when many are returning to daily commutes and road travel—is so important for illuminating the road ahead.
Lonny Pugh: Distracted driving is an issue that hits close to home for many people in our nation, including yourself. Could you tell us about the story behind why you created Project Yellow Light, and how it has grown over the years?
Julie Garner: Project Yellow Light was born from my own personal story. I am a mother who lost her 16-year-old son in a car crash. The crash that took Hunter’s life happened over a decade ago, but the pain of that loss doesn’t go away. Losing a child is one of the most heart-wrenching, chest-crushing, breath-stealing tragedies on Earth. Next to getting my son back, my deepest wish is that no other parent ever has to experience that pain. I also deeply desire that every teen gets to experience all of life’s great milestones: graduation, college, deep relationships, adventures. Distracted drivers on the road shouldn’t get to steal those moments from someone else’s life—nor their own.
Project Yellow Light is a scholarship competition. It honors Hunter’s memory, and it’s also my way of giving back by fighting the preventable tragedy that took his life: distracted driving. It’s an awesome opportunity for high school and college students to help save lives by encouraging safer habits on the road. And hey, they just might win a scholarship!
LP: This year marks the 10th anniversary of the partnership between Ad Council and Project Yellow Light. What have you learned in the last decade and what are you most proud of accomplishing?
JG: We started this scholarship as a film competition in Hunter’s high school with a handful of youth. Three years in, we received a call from the Ad Council to see if we’d like to join their campaign about texting and driving prevention in conjunction with NHTSA. We went from one high school in central VA to a national competition reaching thousands of students across the country—overnight. Literally.
In those 10 years we’ve added billboard and radio competitions to the initial TV/film offering. We’ve enlisted some amazing partnerships to help us spread the word, share the work and support the effort, including AT&T’s It Can Wait, Clear Channel Outdoor, Elephant Insurance, iHeart Radio, the National Organization for Youth Safety (NOYS), and Alex Denis and WKRN-TV Nashville. We’ve established an annual event to announce the winners in Times Square with the winning PSAs displayed on Clear Channel Outdoor’s big boards. Our media partners share our winners’ work via TV, out of home, and radio advertising nationwide. And most importantly, we’ve reached thousands of students each year from every state.
LP: As more people return to daily commutes as well as traveling for pleasure, what does this mean for your cause? As you look ahead, how do you see this scholarship competition continuing spread awareness on the dangers of distracted driving?
JG: Yale professor Guido Calabresi has noted that we have an irrationality when it comes to risks with automobiles. In 2019, 3,142 people were killed and an estimated 424,000 were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted drivers. We’re numb to the dangers and death tolls because vehicle crashes have been part of our lives for so long. Sadly, serious injury and death due to distracted driving are not going away any time soon and the urgency to communicate the dangers are needed now more than ever.
Young people have a unique voice and ability to reach each other on this topic in a way that adults cannot. We’re convinced that they will pave the way to making positive change on distracted driving. Project Yellow Light gives them a voice to make a difference and save lives. It doesn’t get much bigger than this.
LP: What advice do you have for those who want to find a way to take action on issues they care about?
JG: If you’re passionate about a cause or a need, please do something. Do your research. Enlist the help of others. Reach out for guidance and support from the highest sources, the most knowledgeable and successful individuals and organizations. Be intrepid. The worse that can happen is they ignore you—but they just might say yes. Believe in yourself. Follow your heart and your dreams. And sit back and watch the magic happen.