Johnston revs up to lower teen fatality rate

Staff WriterMay 4, 2010 

— Recommendations made Monday by a special task force hope to reduce the number of teens dying on Johnston County's narrow, rural roads.

Since 2005, more than 34 teenagers have been killed in Johnston County accidents. Only Buncombe County had a worse record for teen vehicle fatalities, according to the UNC Highway Safety Research Center.

The task force was the brainchild of Johnston County Commissioner Tony Braswell, who lives near the spot where a Princeton High School senior and a recent graduate lost their lives in a car wreck in 2008. He wanted to draw on the expertise of state and county agencies, including the state Highway Patrol, the N.C. Department of Transportation and Johnston County Schools.

The recommendations to county commissioners include developing new training methods, such as new driving simulators in every high school and driving games for pre-driving-age students, as well as safety campaigns in county high schools that could include mascots, slogans, Internet programs and perhaps crashed cars placed in front of the schools.

The recommendations included revamping drivers training programs and getting teens involved in producing safety campaigns.

Steering committee member Lynda Carroll said the recommendations were the results of six months of study and discussion that included comment from the community. She described the recommendations as "doable" and "feasible, with potential funding sources throughout the United States."

"Some of the recommendations have never been tried. It has not been proven that they work," Carroll said. "We think they will."

Some of the recommendations, such as increasing behind-the-wheel training, would require changes at the state level and approval of the legislature.

One recommendation sure to grab teen drivers' attention: revoking the licenses of students convicted of speeding, texting or talking on their cell phones.

Kadejihia DuBose, 16, has completed driver's education, but she does not yet have her license. She agreed with the recommendation that youngsters should have their license revoked for speeding, texting or talking on their cell phones while driving. "I ain't doing none of that because I'm afraid to take my eyes off the road."

Quagii Lofton, 17, drives a 2002 Chevy Blazer to school each day. He wasn't so sure about a ban on texting and talking on the cell phone while driving.

"I don't know about that," he said. "What if there's an emergency?"

But Eric Burnette, 17, said that if someone has an emergency, they should pull off the road. "It's hard to text and drive," Burnette said. "It takes both hands to text."

Jovahnte Russell, a Smithfield Selma High School junior who drives to school each day, said he doesn't need both hands to text. He merely glances down and punches the letters.

Herb Monson, an assistant principal at South Johnston High School, said it's all about the attitude of youngsters who haven't lived long enough to appreciate that their lives can end in a moment's notice.

Each day when the final bell rings at South Johnston High School, Monson watches student drivers speed out of the parking lot.

"It's like somebody dropped the green flag at the Daytona 500," Monson said.

Two state troopers parked their cruisers on a dirt path near the school entrances Monday afternoon, hoping that their presence would slow the student drivers. A Johnston County sheriff's deputy was parked about a mile away in front of a red-brick house that advertised baby ducks and chicks for sale. A second sheriff's deputy driving a white sport utility vehicle had stopped a female student driver minutes after school adjourned for the day.

Monson said that the Highway Patrol comes to the high school once or twice a month to monitor student traffic.

"They will come out here and burn the students up with tickets for speeding for two or three weeks," Monson said. "They will behave for a day or two and then revert back to their old ways."

Jesse Ferrell, a popular South Johnston student, was killed last week when the pickup truck he was driving flipped over when he lost control of the truck while trying to pass two other vehicles.

Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell who attended Ferrell's funeral said Monday that Ferrell's death appeared to have little effect on students' poor driving habits.

"Young people who were leaving the funeral home were not wearing their seat belts. And then during the funeral procession, they were passing each other," the sheriff said. "I'm telling you, they ain't getting it, y'all."

News researcher Peggy Neal contributed to this report.

thomasi.mcdonald@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4533

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