Early in his career, Highway Patrol lieutenant Jeff Gordon responded to an accident near the South Carolina border. He arrived at the scene to find an SUV flipped over and a white sheet covering the crash victim – a 17-year-old girl.
“I pulled that sheet back, and I saw a beautiful young girl who was basically gone,” he said.
When Gordon broke the news to the girl’s parents, her mother let out a gut-wrenching cry and fell to her knees.
“I felt like somebody had punched me in the stomach,” Gordon said. “I don’t care if you do one (house call) or 20, it doesn’t get any easier.”
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Gordon shared his experiences with Johnston County high school students when the JoCo Teen Drivers held their annual VIP luncheon recently at the Agricultural Center near Smithfield. The luncheon paid tribute to students and sponsors who give their time to promote safe teen driving in Johnston County.
Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell and Superintendent of Schools Ed Croom both spoke. Bizzell said he wants high school students to see law enforcement officers as friends who can help them when it comes to road safety. Calling JoCo Teen Drivers an important program, Croom said he shudders to think of the number of house calls he’s made to support mourning parents.
Gordon, who now works as the public information officer for the N.C. Highway Patrol, was the keynote speaker. County Manager Rick Hester and County Commissioner Ted Godwin were also there.
County Commissioners created JoCo Teen Drivers in 2010 in response to multiple teen traffic accidents and deaths. It’s is a peer-led program meant to increase awareness about road safety. Throughout the school year, students hold safety campaigns in their schools and communities to educate others about driving safety and the risks involved with drinking, texting and speeding on the road. Each high school has about 10 students and an adult sponsor involved with JoCo Teen Drivers.
In 2009, the year before the program started, eight teens died in traffic accidents. Just one died last year, but four have died so far this year – two current students and two recent high school grads.
Clayton State Farm agent Chad Richards was on hand to introduce the “Celebrate my Drive” campaign, where students nationwide can pledge safe-driving practices online. Participating schools can win $100,000 and a concert by The Band Perry.
“This is a winnable problem,” Richards said. “If it wasn’t, you want have made all the progress you have.”
Oct. 19-25 was National Teen Safe Driving Week. As part of the observance, Johnston County held “Beyond Drivers Ed,” a safe-driving event for teens.
Several students at the luncheon said they were excited to teach others about safe-driving practices. At Corinth Holders High School, recent student deaths, though not driving related, have brought the community together, said senior Steven Chiro.
“Any prevention of any more student deaths is very important,” he said.
To close out his talk, Gordon played the music video for “How Could This Happen to Me” by Simple Plan. The video tells the story of a teen girl who gets hit by a drunk driver. He showed the video to illustrate how the choices teens make when they drive can affect everyone in their lives.
While the drop in teen driving deaths is good news, Gordon said work remains to be done. “The only way we’re going to be done is when no teens die on the highways,” he said.