For as long as cars have been on the road, drunk driving has been a problem, which puts today’s age of distracted driving – of smartphones and infotainment centers – in a historic place.
These days teenagers have smartphones well before they take their first driving test. And while practically everything about cars has gotten safer, the act of driving is still very human and precious, with everything at stake.
For nearly a decade, JoCo Teen Drivers has reversed not only a local trend but dealt head on with behind-the-wheel dangers and distractions this generation is facing. Johnston County once made headlines for 11 teen fatalities on county roads in 2007, the most in the state that year. Last year, county officials said, that number was cut to one, with many crediting the turnaround to the work of JoCo Teen Drivers, a student-run group promoting safe driving habits.
“No one wants to lead the state in anything, and when you lead the state in teen driving fatalities, it causes you to stop and reflect and see how you can combat the issue head on so you can save lives,” said Ross Renfrow, Johnston County superintendent of schools. “You’ve saved countless lives in Johnston County. We need to keep up the good work because one teen driving fatality is one too many.”
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Charlie Parrish started the group in 2010, and students and teachers have kept it alive since then. Each spring before prom, the group stages a mock accident to warn against drinking and driving and other bad behind-the-wheel habits. Beyond that, the group constantly encourages students to be safe out there.
At the annual JoCo Teen Drivers luncheon earlier this month, Renfrow offered a personal story of the over-connectedness of smartphones. On a trip to Nashville, his college-aged daughter was intermittently checking her phone as she did the bulk of the driving. He asked her what was so important.
“I’m checking my SnapChat story,” she told him. He replied, “You may not value your life, but as your father, I want you to value mine.”
He said that sunk in, and they had a “device free” trip the rest of the way. On the way back, a serious accident near Winston-Salem snarled traffic, and Renfrow said it could have easily been the kind of thing caused by a couple of careless seconds staring at a screen. He encouraged the students to “disengage.”
The annual luncheon brings students from every Johnston high school together with county leaders and law enforcement to recognize the group’s work. This year’s event included a talk by Peggy Bennett of Talk It Out NC, whose son suffered a traumatic brain injury at 18 when he crashed his car in 2001 after a night of drinking.
Bennett described that early-morning phone call, the one every parent imagines but can never prepare for. It was a call from Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte asking if she had a son named Josh Bennett.
“It feels like a hand just squeezes your heart and you just have no breath,” Bennett said.
Josh worked in a restaurant and went out to a bar with coworkers after a shift. Even though he was 18, he was served, and Bennett said his blood-alcohol level was .22 when he crashed.
“The witness said he flew by her like she was standing still,” Bennett said. “No brakes, no swerving, he hit a concrete bridge well over 70 miles per hour.”
Josh was in a coma for weeks, and as he began to regain consciousness, he had severely limited abilities. But after months and months of work, he graduated from a wheelchair to a walker and later to a cane. At the Johnston County luncheon, he walked on stage with the cane and congratulated the teens on their work. Peggy Bennett said if a group like JoCo Teen Drivers had been there for her son, maybe his story would be different.
“There aren’t initiates like yours all over the state,” Bennett said. “There aren’t, and I wish you could tell others how to do it because (North Carolina) needs more.”
Drew Jackson; 919-603-4943; @jdrewjackson