Survivor of fiery car crash talks to teens about making smart choices behind the wheel

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Survivor of fiery car crash talks to teens about making smart choices behind the wheel

Hundred of students packed the gymnasium at Garden City Collegiate Monday morning, to hear the story of the sole survivor of a fiery crash that took the lives of his three best friends and left him with burns to 75 percent of his body.

It's part of Manitoba Public Insurance's Friends for Life speaker series, that will see three speakers visit nearly 40 high schools over the next couple weeks.

Westhaver spent an hour recounting what happened to him and three high school friends just a month and half before graduation in the spring of 1994 when a car they were riding in slammed into a pole.

"It started rolling and burst into flames. Our sober driver, Jimmy, was ejected," Westhaver told students.

"He was ejected with such force that when he hit the pavement he was killed instantly, his sober teenage life was over," he said.

John Westhaver, now 42, has given over 600 talks to students about the dangers of bad decisions when it comes to getting behind the wheel. He told Grade 11 and 12 students that he and his friends thought they were safe, because they had a sober driver that night.

He told them how speed and inexperience with driving led to the crash, along with the distractions the driver faced from his friends, and the indirect impacts of being intoxicated.

"It really scared me to think that he was the sober one and he ended up passing away … 'cause I'm the [designated driver] sometimes, and that could happen to me one day," said Grade 12 student Victoria Dias.

Westhaver also told students about the burns he had all over his body, and the moments his parents found out he survived the crash, only to be told he would likely die from his injuries.

He talked about how he survived but has had to cope with the disfiguring scars, and the multiple surgeries he's had over the last 20 years.

"It was really motivational and inspirational because I didn't realize … that it could happen to me … it could happen to my family," said Grade 12 student Mikayla Brown.

Westhaver says his message to young drivers isn't just about speeding or drinking and driving, it's about the impact their decisions will have.

"Your choices that you make when in a vehicle, they don't just impact you, they impact everybody in the vehicle and everybody that loves and cares for those people," said Westhaver.

He spoke about the physical injuries he endured, but also the emotional scars that were left behind.

"There was also the emotional impact as well, living with my friends that were killed, the grief, the blame," he said.

"Living as a burn survivor, the psychological impact of that."

Westhaver said the reason he speaks with teens is to help them realize the consequences of their actions. He said he draws inspiration from having a young daughter of his own.

"I would never want her to be in a situation like this, that's why I do this, because everyone of these students is that to their parents," he said.

Youth more likely to be involved in impaired crashes

MPI says youth, ages 16-19, are nearly four times as likely to be involved in a collision while impaired, compared to drivers 25 and older.

An average of 29 Manitobans are killed each year because of distracted driving.

Ward Keith, with MPI, said with legalized cannabis on the horizon in Manitoba, there will be more of a focus on how drugs and medications also affect impairment.

"Evidence has suggested that young people are increasing their use of drugs, with cannabis use now reported as more common than alcohol consumption," Keith said.

Dias said she worries about other drivers on the road, and also worries about friends who may think it's ok to smoke pot and drive.

"I know people who do it, and they say 'oh it doesn't affect me', but at the end of the day you're still impaired, your decisions are still clouded, your judgements are clouded," she said.

"When I know I'm at my friends or going out, I always make sure that they have a safe ride home and if they don't then I'm willing to come pick them up," said Dias.

The speaker series, in conjunction with Manitoba School Boards Association and Teens Against Destructive Decisions (TADD), is meant to bring powerful messages to students in hopes they make better driving decisions.

Other speakers include Cheryl Tofin, who lost her 16-year-old daughter in a drunk-driving collision, and Amanda Stuhl-Oling, who lost her father in a crash where a teen chose to drink and drive.

The Friends for Life speaker series has reached more than 100,000 students over the past five years.