A unique display crafted by a tragic night over two years ago has become a mobile art piece to teach communities about the fragility of life. The car in which Taylor White’s life ended at Milepost 37 of the Glacier Highway on June 5, 2009 now serves as a visual statement on a multitude of levels.
The twisted metal sculpture is the result of an accident that killed one, and left two more injured and a community in mourning.
“You have to do different things to get different kids’ attention,” Carol White, Taylor’s mother said. “My husband had this vision of using the car in that way. It took me about two years before I could look at it, but now I see hope.”
The car was impounded as evidence after the drunk driving accident that claimed their son’s life and remained at the Juneau Police Department until the Taylors could find a flatbed trailer to take it away. Tyler Rental donated a crane to lift it on the trailer for transportation.
Kevin White, Taylor’s father, approached Thunder Mountain High School art teacher Jan Neimeyer with an idea to use the remains of the car in a fashion that would benefit the community. The Taylors started the Taylor White Foundation after the accident in a desire that his death be a force for good and build a community environment that supports Juneau teens in making healthy choices around high risk behaviors.
Neimeyer’s digital art class started working on the project in March for the various 2011 high school graduations.
“That is when so much of this crazy stuff happens,” Carol White said. “And that was when Taylor died.”
The class watched the TWF video “Taylor White Aftermath,” an account of the events leading up to that night’s drunk driving fatality and interviews with the driver, passenger, and the best friend who found Taylor, and the many people who knew him.
Kevin then brought the car to the high school and the class then examined the 1999 Audi that the three teens occupied that night. The front and rear ends are squashed into the seats and engine, the driver’s side door is gone, and a gaping hole is in a shattered front windshield.
According to Neimeyer the class thought the video was extremely powerful for people, and wanted them to feel the same way when they look at the display.
The digital arts class came up with the idea of using the different roles of the people involved in the accident that night and designed nameless stylized photos with brief descriptions. One tells the story of Taylor’s life, another the best friend who found his body after the crash, one the remorse of the driver and another the passenger who survived.
Commercial Sign and Printing in Juneau printed the high-grade plaques without charge as a donation to the Foundation. No names are listed so that every viewer can relate to being the driver, best friend and passenger.
“The kids involved were really impacted,” Carol White said. “Do they need their names mentioned with it their whole lives? (The driver) is not shy at all about his putting his name out there, but the other thing is it could be any of our kids in our town. Any kid can be represented in those roles. It could be them being the best friend or the driver. We were hoping it would be easier to connect to by not naming names.”
The plaque states Taylor White died as a result of being a passenger in a drunk driving accident days after his graduation from JDHS. He was excited about college, his next phase of life, and looking forward to a road trip with friends before college. A statistic follows saying motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for U.S. teens. In 2009, eight teens age 16-18 died every day from motor vehicle injuries according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This age group is four times more likely to crash than adult drivers.
The plaque of the passenger states she was the only one wearing a seat belt. She went for help bleeding and with a fractured hip. Her plaque states that in 2008 nearly three out of every four teen drivers killed in motor vehicle crashes after drinking and driving were not wearing a seat belt (CDC). In 2008, seat belts saved more than 13,000 lives nationwide according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Teens have the lowest rate of seatbelt use. Male high school student use is even lower, and seatbelt use among young people was 76 percent.
The plaque of the best friend stated he rushed to the scene and found Taylor’s body. First was the wreckage in the road, the driver, then the car, and finally — in the woods — Taylor. The plaque states in 2009, more than 350,000 teens were treated in emergency departments for injuries from car crashes.
The parents’ plaque shares their hopes and dreams for the foundation and young people and states, “Our lives are defined by before the accident, and after the accident.”
The driver’s plaque states the loss of a friend is something you can never take back. The accident left him lying in a ditch unable to move and he was flown to Seattle for treatment. He served a year in prison and has five years probation, over $20,000 in legal fees, treatment expenses over $100,000 and was not covered by family health insurance. Other losses for underage drinking violators can include loss of voting rights, academic eligibility, scholarships, ability to get a hunting license, limits on jobs and a lifetime of being a felon. The NHSTA says that among male drivers between 15 and 20 years old who were involved in fatal crashes in 2005, 37 percent were speeding at the time of the crash and 26 percent had been drinking.
The driver that fateful night stated that he doesn’t want the accident to be what he is remembered for, but thinks the display is worth it if it helps someone make a better choice. The Whites and the driver, who recently completed his prison sentence after pleading guilty to criminally negligent homicide last year, have a good relationship.
Present Juneau District Court Judge Thomas Nave was the driver’s attorney after the accident.
“The case was heartbreaking all around, but one of those examples of a case where tragedy can be turned into something positive,” Nave said.
Nave said the driver was out there before his case was even over, taking responsibility.
The Whites testified for the driver at his sentencing and he helped the Whites establish their foundation.
Judge Philip Pallenberg stated at the time, “If a minimum sentence didn’t apply in this case than I don’t know if there will ever be a case that does.”
The public outpouring of support led to the driver reporting to jail and being processed into a halfway house within hours of beginning his sentence. With attendance in alcohol programs he was released into probation on May 5. He carries a full load at the University of Alaska Southeast and continues to make an impact on kids through the foundation.
“Kids need to be giving kids this message and they will say it in a way that reaches other kids,” Carol White said of the display. “It puts it in a way that other kids will react to, rather than it being something an adult conceived that a kid would react to. It was conceived by teenagers to speak to other teenagers.”
The roaming display has been at the Thunder Mountain and Juneau-Douglas High School proms and graduations. It has rested at the parking lot in the Mendenhall Lake Campground. State Parks Southeast Area Superintendant Mike Eberhardt gave permission for it to be at Eagle Beach over the July Fourth weekend. Gastineau Contractors has allowed the sculpture to park there for free. Bear Body Works said it could rest for free at their location next year.
The TWF will have a board meeting July 24, exploring where it can sit on private land or on public land with permission. The board, made up of many of Taylor’s peers, have made requests at other locations around town for display.
“Anybody in the community that wants it to be someplace and has land that it could be easily viewed than we would love to hear from you,” White said. “Just let us know and we will be happy to put it in your front yard if you want it.”
White said the foundation has been her way to cope with Taylor’s loss by trying to do work that keeps other people from being in her shoes.
“You don’t ever get over it,” White said. “There is nothing worse. The way we feel about our children is probably the strongest emotions we will ever have. And to prevent somebody else from having to go through that is part of the coping strategy I guess.”
White commented on the amount of teen and adult alcohol related violations that appear in the Juneau court system.
“As a community we need to come together and decide if this is something that we really think is okay to continue,” White said. “And if it is not than what needs to happen on a community level for it to stop? I think that it is a challenge because it is not just a kid problem; it is an adult problem to. Everybody has to say this needs to change. The whole point is everybody thinks it can’t happen to them, but it can. It keeps happening over and over again.”
The names of the driver, the passenger, and the best friend relating to this story were omitted by request of the Whites so that, “Anyone reading the article can put themselves in that situation, in the accident before it happened and after.”
• Contact reporter Klas Stolpe at 523-2263 or at email@example.com.