Crash victim reminds New Canaan of the dangers of distracted driving

Jacy Good was having one of the best days of her life. It was May 18, 2008, and she had just graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. She was moving back with her parents for a few weeks until she could relocate to New York City for a job she had secured.

However, about halfway to her parents' home in Lancaster, Pa., an accident completely changed the course of her life. Good would not move with her parents that day. She would spend the next four months in a hospital and she never would see her parents again.

The car she and her parents were in was hit by an 18-wheel tractor-trailer that was going the opposite way.

The driver swerved to miss a minivan that tried to turn left at a red light and cut in front of the truck. The driver of the minivan was talking on his cellphone.

Good and her husband, Steve Johnson, now travel the country to speak about the dangers of distracted driving. On March 12, she spoke to a crowd of students and parents at New Canaan High School as part of the Parent Faculty Association's Safe Driving Month.

"This story needs to be told because what happened to me is not unique," Good said. "I'm not special in any way ... In fact, that day and today and tomorrow, right about 1,000 people get hurt because someone else is using their cellphone."

Good was given just a 10 percent chance of survival as she lay unrecognizable in a hospital bed the night of the accident.

More Information
Distracted-Driving laws in Connecticut
Hand-held ban: All drivers are banned from using hand-held cellphones. This is a primary law, which means that an officer can ticket the driver for the offense without any other traffic violation taking place. Drivers are allowed to use hands-free cellphones.
Novice drivers: Drivers under the age of 18 are not allowed to text or talk on a hand-held cellphone. They cannot use hands-free cellphones and are prohibited from using any other electronic device while driving. This is a primary law.
School bus drivers: School bus drivers are prohibited from using both hands-free and hand-held devices, except in emergencies. This is a primary law.
Text messaging: All drivers, including adult, novice and school bus, are prohibited from texting while driving. This is a primary law.
Source: Department of Motor Vehicles

"Her head was swollen to almost twice the normal size. I mean, she looked like an alien," Johnson said.

The two met in college and were dating at the time of the accident. They were married four months ago.

"You wouldn't have thought a person could be alive and look the way she did," he said. "They called her the miracle child ... The doctors and nurses said they had never seen anyone with injuries like her's recover the way she did."

At the March 12 event, a pre-recorded video of Johnson, who could not attend, was shown on a projector screen a few times to fill the parts of the story Good couldn't remember. She said it took months for her to understand what had happened to her.

Stephanie Kushner and Wendy Pratt, co-presidents of New Canaan High School's Parent Faculty Association, said the safe driving campaign started because of the frequency of accidents that have impacted the region in recent years.

In March 2012, Brianna McEwan, a 17-year-old New Canaan High student, struck and killed a jogger on New Canaan Avenue in Norwalk while driving and surfing the Internet on her cellphone at the same time. Later that year, McEwan received a suspended prison sentence under a youthful-offender program

Kushner noted that distracted driving is very common among adults as well.

"This is not just a high school issue, this is a community issue, one that has really impacted all of us," Kushner said. "Sometimes, as parents, we even find ourselves glancing over at the phone that won't stop buzzing, or reaching for the coffee cup or the lip gloss, or whatever it is that we think we need at the moment. But safe driving is really a message that needs to continually be driven home to us and that we need to continually be reminded of."

Each day in the U.S., at least nine people are killed and more than 1,000 are injured in crashes that are reported to involve a distracted driver, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Distracted driving is not just about holding a cellphone, though. The CDC notes that any activity that takes one's mind off driving is counted as distracted driving. In addition, studies show that using a headset cellphone is not substantially safer than holding a device.

The driver of the minivan involved in the crash that killed Good's parents had his cellphone on speaker mode on his lap, she said.

"His brain had been thinking more about this conversation he was having than the road in front of him," Good said.

She only began to realize what happened when she moved back to her parents' house months after the accident. And that's when she began to feel devastated.

"It was absolutely the worst hand of cards I can imagine being dealt," Good said. "I was 21 years old, stuck in a wheelchair, I was an orphan. Has anything worse ever happened to anyone?"

However, Good said she figured that crying was not going to take her anywhere.

"I sat at home and cried and cried until I had no more tears," she said. "But then I realized I wasn't accomplishing anything.

"It hurt too much to be true. It still hurts too much to be true ... But I needed to get out and try to do something."

Less than a year after the tragedy, Good began to campaign for a cellphone ban in Pennsylvania. Her turnaround story prompted a flood of interview requests and public appearances, including an event with United Nations' Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and an interview on the "Oprah Winfrey Show."

Since April 2010, she has been featured in many news articles and TV stories. Johnson and Good have spoken at about 300 events across the country. They've also been working to encourage companies to develop and enforce cellphone policies and legislators to pass laws banning cellphone use for drivers.

This is not the career Good had planned for herself, but she is doing something she always planned to -- serving the community. Good graduated in German studies and international studies with a concentration in environmental issues. Before the accident, she had landed a job through AmeriCorps to be a team leader for Habitat For Humanity.

Good said she's glad to help save lives. "It never needs to happen again," she said.

Most of Good's injuries have healed, but because of a traumatic brain injury, she does not have full use of her left leg or arm.

Denise Fumega, who attended the presentation with her daughter Nicole Meahan, 14, had tears in her eyes.

"It was amazing," Fumega said. "I knew it was going to be (emotional). I brought tissues with me." Fumega said she'll now make sure her phone is out of the way when she's driving.

"I have a co-worker who leaves his phone in the trunk every time he's driving," she said. "I always thought that was an amazing idea, and I think I'm going to follow that."

Meahan, a freshman at New Canaan High School, said she knows what to do when she gets her license. "I'll turn my phone on silent," she said.

Kushner told attendees she hoped Good's story would help change people's driving habits.

"(Her story) will be a reminder for you, forever, every time you're behind the wheel in a car," Kushner said. "But not only is she just a good reminder, she's also an inspiration of someone who has taken tragic events in her life and really become an inspiration.";

203-330-6582, @olivnelson