Johnston County has lost a beloved politician and an important figure in North Carolina history.
Robert D. “Bob” Warren, the former state senator who lead the push for North Carolina’s seatbelt law, died d late last month at the age of 84.
Warren, a Democrat elected in 1979, lost his seat in 1988. Political observers said the seatbelt law, which was unpopular at the time, ended his political career.
Durwood Stephenson, a Smithfield businessman who knew Warren, said many people saw the seatbelt mandate as an imposition on their personal freedoms.
“He took a beating for that — he got sort of raked over the coals for being an advocate for it,” Stephenson said. “But he knew it was the right thing to do and it never bothered him that he lost his seat over it.”
Warren, a native of Sampson County, spent much of his life in Benson. He served as principal of the town’s high school and then the town’s elementary school before going into politics.
Norman Denning, a longtime Johnston county commissioner and a close friend of Warren’s, said he was an advocate for the schools throughout his career.
“Bob tried to do as much as he possibly could for education,” said Denning, who is now 89. “That was one of his great loves in politics.”
Stephenson said Warren was also an advocate for women’s rights, at a time when the state was split on the issue. Locally, he was involved in Benson’s fire department and rescue squad, which needed advocates in the days before they received most of their funding from taxpayers.
But it was his push for the seatbelt law — passed in 1985 as one of the nation’s first — that people remember most.
Stephenson said it became a major cause for him in the early 1980s, after he had spoken about it with experts and insurance companies.
“He became convinced by statistics,” Stephenson said. “He talked to a lot of people. They all said, ‘No question, seatbelts save lives.’”
In those days, some vehicles still did not have seatbelts, and many drivers saw a seatbelt mandate as an intrusive regulation. But Warren became convinced it was the right thing to do.
“He was about doing what was best for the common good,” Stephenson said.
Warren’s stubborn dedication stayed with him after he left politics. (He served briefly as a liaison for state Sen. Henson Barnes after he lost his seat). He applied his blunt honesty to helping lead Benson Baptist Church, where he was a deacon. Warren earned the respect of church members, including Benson Mayor William Massengill.
“He didn’t mince words. You knew where he stood on a position,” Massengill said. “He was very direct (about) what his beliefs were.”
Massengill came to admire those qualities in Warren, who became a political role model for him. Too many politicians today are too concerned with popular opinion and public perception, Massengill said.
“There are still some people who operate that way, but I think it’s more rare,” he said of Warren’s frankness.
The law that made him unpopular in the 1980s has become widely accepted today. And his name graces a section of Interstate 40 in Johnston and Sampson counties.
Supporters say his legislation has probably saved many lives. “Later they found out it was one of the best bills we had passed,” Denning said. “It was a wonderful thing he did.”