Crash survivor tells teens: 'Hang up and Drive'

John Christensen
Jacy Good (right) and her husband, Steve Johnson, tell their story to Penn Yan Academy students.

Jacy Good does not have the life she dreamed of as she graduated from Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa. in 2008. That dream died with her parents in a terrible car crash that same day, caused by a teenaged driver distracted by his cell phone.

Since 2011, Jacy and her then college boyfriend and now husband, Steve Johnson, have spoken together on stages, appeared with Oprah Winfrey, and working with Gov. Andrew Cuomo, making it their mission to convince everyone of the dangers of distracted driving and advocating for cell-free roads.

On Monday morning, Jacy and Steve brought their story to Penn Yan Academy, with a combination of humor, self-deprecation, and genuine pathos. They met in August 2004 when they both moved into the same dorm at college. Within a few weeks, they shared their first kiss, which Steve admitted was his first kiss ever.

Dating all through college, they approached their May 2008 graduation day “ready for real life to begin.” Steve would return to his family’s home in Westchester County to look for work in the banking world of New York City. Jacy meanwhile had landed her dream job to be a team leader for Habitat For Humanity. “We had plans for our careers as well as our lives together, but just hours after receiving our diplomas we were thrust into a world of terror, uncertainty, and overwhelming sadness,” they say.

After packing up her dorm room, and halfway home to Lancaster, Pa., the last memory Jacy has of that day is her father stopping at the gas station they always stopped at on the way home from these trips to college. Starting out again, their car with Jacy in the passenger seat and her mother in the back was struck head-on by a 30-ton tractor trailer milk truck as both entered an intersection with green lights. The truck driver had swerved to try to avoid an 18-year-old high school senior in a minivan who attempted to turn left through his red light at the intersection. He was talking on his phone at the time.

“This is the really inconvenient part, to talk about this issue that we don’t want to listen to,” Good says. “Because our phones are awesome, our phones do incredible things. This young man, both hands on the wheel, looking out the windshield, got to that red light and it just never registered in his brain.”

Jacy’s father never stood a chance. Her mother had forgotten to buckle up in the backseat and was thrown forward. She too died on impact. A volunteer paramedic heard the crash and hurried to the scene from his home nearby. He found Jacy with a pulse, but not breathing. By unpinning her head, he kept Jacy alive in the crumpled car until the ambulance arrived. By sheer good luck, she survived that ride to the only trauma hospital in the county that was just 10 minutes away; and she endured 8 1/2 hours of surgery, but was given just a 10 percent chance of survival.

Steve had no idea, having reached his home safely. “My phone rang around 6 p.m. and I picked up and I said, “Hey babe,” but it just wasn’t her voice on the other side. This person said, ‘My name is Barb, I’m a chaplain of the Reading Hospital in Pennsylvania, and there’s been an accident.’ That line just destroyed me.”

Jacy’s brother called Johnson several hours later to break the news. She had two broken feet, a broken tibia, a broken fibula, a shattered pelvis, a broken wrist, a broken collarbone, a lacerated liver, partially collapsed lungs, damaged carotid arteries, and a traumatic brain injury, but was alive. That relief was bittersweet knowing that her parents, who already treated him like their own son, had been killed.

Steve says Jacy lay comatose and nearly unrecognizable in intensive care that first night. In her comatose state, he had to keep her hands from pulling away the tubes and sensors that were keeping her alive. One day he counted being punched by her over 200 times as she clawed at the respirator tube connected to her trachea. Steve spent 12 hours a day by her side through four months of her hospital stay.

In the years since her extensive list of injuries have healed, and she has persevered through long courses of physical therapy to relearn even basic functions, but her traumatic brain injury has left her unable to use her left arm or lower leg, and she has some lingering cognitive difficulties.

The ripple effects of their tragedy are profound. Jacy’s brother had to call their grandparents with the terrible news their children were dead. Their mother was a beloved teacher missed by her hundreds of students. The truck driver, haunted by that day, was never again able to get behind the wheel; his family fell apart, he fell into drug use, and later died of an overdose. Jacy calls him the third death from the accident.

Jacy says that cell-phone companies have been active in discouraging texting and driving, but have been silent on voice distractions.

Jacy and Steve both hope eventually to be out of their job as public speakers on this issue. “If I’m looking at it realistically, I don’t want this to be my job forever. I want people to stop killing each other. It’s in your hands to make this world, to make our roads a little bit better place to be. And if my parents left me with anything, it’s that this world is broken, and we can do something to make this world a little bit better”