Every place, no matter how quaint or large, has its defining features. Johnston County has quite a few: Southern pride, red hot dogs, tobacco fields, among many others.
But one thing our county is known for lingers like a dark cloud: teenage death by motor vehicle accident. The problem is well known and needs to be combated.
One could go up to most any teenager in this county and ask, “Do you know someone around your age who has been in a wreck?” and most every time, the response would be a yes. In 2007 alone, 11 Johnston County teenagers lost their lives either driving or riding in vehicle that crashed.
I have often heard law enforcement officers refer to this as a “waste of life,” and they are right. It is truly a waste when young men and women with promising futures die. Oftentimes their deaths can be attributed to inexperience behind the wheel and to the feeling of invincibility we young people seem to have in dangerous situations. The problem is we have the mindset that it won’t happen to us, when, in reality, it easily can. This mindset only leads to higher risk of being in a motor vehicle collision.
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Another reoccurring cause is texting while driving. “While they’re reading that text message or sending one, they’ve traveled the entire length of a football field,” said one state trooper. Texting is such a common way of communication for teenagers that we do it almost instinctively, even behind the wheel. The danger with texting is obvious. It is a distraction, and driving while distracted is impossible.
Fortunately, things have been looking up in recent years. Between 2009 and 2013, only 18 teen lives were lost. This is still a quite significant number but a comforting statistic in comparison to a couple of years prior. This likely has to do with law enforcement getting more and more serious every year in dealing with teen driving safety. Programs such as Streetsafe are mandatory for teenagers who receive a serious ticket.
But law enforcement can only do so much to lessen these teen driving accidents. A few years ago a teen I know decided to drink and get behind the wheel. This resulted in a crash and his life never being the same again. I have been in a collision myself. It was my fault and completely preventable. I had always listened to the lectures given to me about the importance of safe driving, but it wasn’t until my own wreck that I truly understood that importance.
Many teen driving accidents occur on long, winding country roads where law enforcement is often not patrolling, and being young, teens use this as an opportunity to speed. At this point, it is solely up to the young man or woman driving to make the right decision. This is an obvious statement, but what more can really be done? How could we as a community continue to reduce these tragic losses of life?
What can be done?
An organization known as JoCo Teen Drivers has taken up the fight against motor vehicle collisions involving teens. This group, made up of teens, has held seminars and events to promote safe driving. These teens are a shining example of how all of young drivers need to act on the issue. More groups like this need to be formed, perhaps by brave teens who have made a mistake such as drinking and driving. They could tell their stories, as could teenagers who have been in accidents.
Another option for reducing teen deaths would be to offer incentives to safe teenage drivers. Certain insurance companies already offer a discount for taking an online class in safe driving and keeping a driving log. This would benefit not only the teen but the family of the driver as well, making all parties happy. Another manageable motivation would be to give gas gift cards to safe teen drivers. These rewards could be distributed possibly by the schools or local government. Incentives are among the most effective ways for young people to try to achieve a goal or standard.
Perhaps the most realistic approach is to host a festival or fair. This could be very similar to Smithfield’s Ham & Yam Festival but with a safe-driving theme. For this festival, events such as a cook-off or a car raffle come to mind. Also, Streetsafe has a collection of machines and devices that provide teens an idea of what it is like to be behind the wheel drunk or in a low-speed crash. Groups such as JoCo Teen Drivers could set up booths, small bands could play, and in between bands, a speaker could come up and tell personal driving experiences.
Ultimately, it is up to the teenagers behind the wheel to decide to be safe for themselves and the others on the road. The community can promote safety, and tragic stories can be told daily, but no difference will be made unless those my age realize the importance of safe driving. I have faith the tragic loss of young lives in automobile collisions in our county will soon be among the lowest in the state.
The writer is a Smithfield resident who attends UNC-Chapel Hill.