This fall, 15-year-old Caytlin Johnston will start drivers education, taking the wheel of the family car for the first time.
Like other teens, she’s been warned countless times about the dangers of driving while distracted by texting, loud music or rowdy friends.
But the North Thurston High School sophomore isn’t likely to forget the toll that distracted driving can take on a family and a community. Johnston said that when she needs a reminder, she looks no further than her brother, William Johnston, who died in a car crash five years ago.
“I always knew that I wanted to be a safe driver, but what happened to William has really opened my eyes,” Caytlin Johnston said.
William Johnston, 18, died on Oct. 19, 2010, after he lost control of his car on Hawks Prairie Road, first hitting a power pole and then a fence. A Washington State Patrol investigation concluded that speed was a factor in the crash. His two passengers sustained only minor injuries.
“I think one of the hardest things was seeing my friends take their siblings to college,” Caytlin Johnston said. “I’ll never be able to do that. I don’t have any other siblings.”
In an effort to prevent other families from experiencing what hers did, Caytlin Johnston has teamed up with Thurston County’s Target Zero Task Force, Coroner Gary Warnock and local law enforcement agencies.
She has taken on the project to earn a Girl Scouts Gold Award — an award similar in prestige to the Boy Scouts of America’s Eagle Scout rank — and plans to give presentations at local high schools and youth groups. Her partners in the project will join her in giving the talks.
“We’re hoping that at least one of us gets through to the kids, that one of us will say something that really resonates,” said Anne Larsen of Target Zero.
The program will officially kick off Monday, the anniversary of William’s death, when local law enforcement agencies will conduct a distracted driving emphasis patrol from 1-7 p.m. Officers will pull over distracted drivers and hand out fliers that show William Johnston’s face and tell his story.
Olympia Sgt. Bryan Wyllie said he’s seen far too many drivers who are complacent about the risks of distracted driving.
“We’ll pull them over, and they’re only worried about the fine, or what it will do to their insurance,” Wyllie said. “And we’re continuously asked, ‘Don’t you have anything better to do?’ ”
But those officers also have seen injuries and deaths that could have been prevented. He said he hopes that drivers will leave the fliers in their cars and think of William Johnston when they get behind the wheel.
“It’s a huge problem,” Wyllie said. “I’m glad that someone’s taking it seriously and trying to make a difference.”
Carrol Johnston, Caytlin Johnston’s mom, said she’s proud that her daughter has decided to take on the project.
“I really appreciate her wanting to help other families,” Carrol Johnston said. “We had talked to him about speeding, and it didn’t matter. Even the smartest kids can make a bad decision, and I hope that Caytlin can get through to them.”