Parked on the front lawn of West Johnston High School are two smashed-up cars warning of the dangers that lurk on county roadways. The metal is twisted, the glass is shattered, and hundreds of students have to pass them each day.
In 2007, Johnston County earned a top state ranking it did not want. That year, 11 teenagers lost their lives in wrecks on county roads, the highest total in the state. It was a time for outrage and mourning – and for some, a call to action.
In 2010, county leaders and students formed JoCo Teen Drivers, a group aimed at educating early drivers about the dangers of distractions and speed behind the wheel. The group holds events throughout the year and recently smashed up cars at several campuses as a warning against poor decisions at prom.
Whether owed to one group, or to countywide caution, teen deaths from wrecks are down. Johnston had two teen fatalities in 2015, following a year with six, the highest total in the past five years. In 2013, one young person died.
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Oliver Johnson is the Johnston County school system’s assistant superintendent for student service. Last week, he spoke to the board of education about teen driving fatalities.
“It’s difficult to get enthusiastic about this topic, but there is a silver lining,” he told school leaders. “Our teen fatalities are decreasing. If we continue with this trend, my prayer is that we’ll look at that column and see all zeros.”
Last year’s two fatalities ranked Johnston County sixth in the state, tied for its lowest ranking in the past five years. In those five years, 15 teens have died in county crashes, also putting Johnston sixth. Wake County’s 29 deaths since 2011 make it the deadliest county to drive in as a teen, though Mecklenburg, with significantly higher total crashes with injuries, makes it the most dangerous.
The numbers from the past five years shows that teen deaths in Johnston all happened on two-lane roads when a car left its lane. Nearly all of them involved only one car. The vast majority happened in the daytime and did not involve alcohol. Half were not wearing a seatbelt, and 67 percent were speeding.
Johnson gave credit for Johnston’s falling numbers to the work of JoCo Teen Drivers.
“We’ve done some really good work in Johnston County to suppress these numbers, and our teens continue to lead the way with an emphasis on buckling up and not texting in cars – paying attention when they’re on the roadway,” Johnson said. “Parents need to be involved; don’t buy your kid a 500-horsepower car, get them a Volvo station wagon.”
Johnston’s roads do drivers no favors, especially inexperienced ones. The narrow and fast two-lane roads that crisscross the county were made to get crops and livestock to market, not necessarily to soccer practice, said Haywood Daughtry, a regional traffic engineer for the N.C. Department of Transportation and a member of the JoCo Teen Drivers steering committee.
“Johnston County is very similar to the rest of Eastern North Carolina: Roads were placed along property lines and paved whenever paving became the standard,” Daughtry said.
Before Daughtry became involved with the group last year, he was already investigating fatal crashes as part of his DOT job. That’s where he got to know JoCo Teen Drivers founder Charlie Parrish, who wanted to know what could be done to decrease the number of teen deaths. Daughtry said one thing stands out.
“Speed kills,” he said. “That’s the biggest common denominator. Either the statutory or posted speed limit is ignored; a lot of issues had to do with speed. I drilled that into my son’s head when he got his license. It’s better to be late than not get there at all.”
Drew Jackson: 919-553-7234, Ext. 104; @jdrewjackson