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"We live with his guilt." Melissa's son made a choice that cost 5 lives, including his own.

Melissa McGuinness finds it hard to grieve her son, Jordan. Not because she didn’t love him profoundly, not because she doesn’t feel his loss as brutally as if it just happened. But because his death was the result of a decision he made, a decision that also cost the lives of four strangers.

Late on December 7, 2012, 18-year-old Jordan Hayes-McGuinness chose to drive home to the Gold Coast from a work Christmas party in Brisbane. Shortly after midnight, his speeding Nissan Pulsar clipped a guard rail on the Pacific Motorway, near Coomera, and collided with the back of a broken-down Holden that sat parked in the shoulder lane.

The Holden burst into flames. Its 16-year-old driver escaped with burns, but his four passengers, aged between 17 and 23, were killed. Among them was a couple, who were parents to a then-15-month-old girl.

Jordan died at the scene. A post-mortem toxicology report concluded there were high levels of alcohol and marijuana in his system.

“That day still haunts me,” Melissa told Mamamia. “I remember going to bed that night, about midnight. I’d cried 25,000 rivers by that stage, and I was trying to go to sleep, but all I could see was Jordan. I couldn’t get the image out of my head of Jordan lying dead, cold and alone… The whole thing was amplified by the fact that I knew there were four other families probably doing the same thing.”

Jordan. Image: Supplied.

Throughout the coronial investigations that followed, it was revealed Jordan was on a restricted license following a low-level speeding fine. According to the coroner's report, a friend also told the inquest Jordan had previously driven while under the influence of alcohol and marijuana, none of which Melissa nor her husband, Peter (Jordan's stepfather), had been aware of.

Jordan had shown a pattern of reckless driving that, on that December night in 2012, had the worst possible conclusion.

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"It was very hard to find out that information about Jordan because, as his mother, I know what sort of kid he is; I know his morals and his values. I mean, we instilled them in him. And I know that he would have been so horrified to know what legacy he left behind," Melissa said.

"If you were to look at Jordan as a kid, he was no saint, but you would never have thought that he would have behaved that way. He had a lot of respect for himself, for his family, for his mates. It was such a big shock and a surprise to us that he'd chosen to make such horrendous choices that night."

"We live with Jordan's guilt."

Melissa talks a lot about the duality of her feelings about Jordan's death, about her emotions being "at odds" with one another. Love and anger. Sadness and inspiration. Grief and guilt. Both she and Peter carry all these with them every day, and they do it with purpose.

"Jordan didn't intend to do what he did — of course he didn't," Peter said. "But intent is irrelevant if you're one of the victims. He killed them because of the choices he made. So we pick that ownership. In fact, we call it guilt; we live with Jordan's guilt.

"We have taken aboard what Jordan left for us, and not tried to minimise it or set it aside, because loving Jordan and carrying his culpability is two sides of the same coin. We can't put the coin down and move on without it."

Instead, they've found a way to put it to use.

Melissa and Peter. Image: Supplied.

The couple run an organisation called You Choose — Youth Road Safety, which delivers presentations to high schools that aim to empower students to change their driving behaviour.

It's not about lecturing about right and wrong, safety and danger — Melissa and Peter know that doesn't get through. It's about a mum who could be theirs, talking about a teenager who could be them, and the devastating consequences of a choice he made.

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It gets through because Jordan is relatable. He was a champion rugby player. An apprentice builder. A wonderful friend. He was a loving brother to his two little sisters, aged just four and 10 at the time of his death. He was the kind of son who would rarely leave the house without kissing his mum and telling her he loved her.

And it gets through because Melissa and Peter don't shy away from the brutal detail.

Police buzzing the door of their Gold Coast apartment to deliver the news. Melissa's legs turning to jelly with the sheer horror. Melissa feeling desperate for the sun not to set that evening, because it brought her closer to the following morning — her first without him. Then months of willing the sun to set sooner, because it meant she'd made it through another day.

Image: Supplied.

"I pretty much cry every single time I do the presentation," Melissa said. "It's draining yet it's so uplifting knowing that we might just contribute to changing the outcome for one family."

"Jordan didn't have an accident..."

This year, Melissa and Peter are also lending their voices to the Australian Road Safety Foundation to amplify Fatality Free Friday. Taking place on May 29, it's an annual initiative with a simple goal: to raise awareness of the human cost of careless driving by calling for extra vigilance behind the wheel.

That emphasis on choice and consequence underpins Melissa and Peter's work.

"This is why we're such big supporters of Fatality Free Friday," Peter said. "There is a cultural and even academic predisposition to excuse young people their poor choices behind the wheel because it's 'part of growing up'. From a cultural standpoint, I cannot tell you how many times we hear people, while trying to empathise with us, using the old, clapped-out maxim, 'Poor Jordan. We've all done it.' Well A, no, we haven't all done it. And B, not 'poor Jordan'.

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"This sounds harsh, but we're in a position to be able to speak to this: Jordan didn't have an accident; his victims had an accident. Jordan made a series of choices and developed a pattern of driving behaviours that culminated in the deaths of four other people."

It's a message about agency and empowerment they hope to share in as many schools around Australia as possible.

As of February this year — before life-saving coronavirus lockdowns were enforced — Melissa had reached roughly 15,000 students with her presentations. Her work recently earned her a nomination for Gold Coast Woman of the Year.

You Choose — Youth Road Safety is self-funded, barring a few modest donations, and both she and Peter hold other day jobs. Their vision is to secure corporate sponsorship so they can dedicate themselves to You Choose fulltime and have families like theirs delivering presentations around the country. The goal is to leave what they call young "leaders of the movement" behind them along the way.

For them, it's all about reaching the person who checks their phone while driving, or rushes through the orange traffic light, or gets behind the wheel tired. The person at a party at 2 a.m. who makes the choice not to drive home and ensures their friend does the same.

"It's about them remembering us and going, 'this is one of those moments, one of those defining moments, that if I don't speak up, my friend could have Jordan's story. My friend's family could end up going through what the McGuinnesses are going through,'" Melissa said.

Reaching that person is why Melissa believes it's worth reliving that haunting day over and over. It comes back to the entanglement of the good and the bad, to the 'at-odds' nature of their new lives.

"The woman Melissa McGuinness was on December 8, 2012, is not the same Melissa McGuinness that is here today; that woman, she's gone," Melissa said.

"But I feel enormously grateful that, in amongst all of this misery that we've experienced, I've been lucky enough to find grace and purpose and meaning, to turn the misery into something positive."

Ahead of this Fatality Free Friday — May 29 — join forces to beat road trauma and take the pledge to 'Choose Road Safety' via the Australian Road Safety Foundation website.

For more information about You Choose or to book Melissa for a presentation at your local school, visit the YouChoose — Youth Road Safety website.

Feature image: Supplied.

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