In 2007, 11 teenagers died on Johnston roadways, ranking the county first in teen driving deaths in North Carolina.
Soon after, people in the county came together to try to prevent these deaths, and their efforts are paying off.
In 2013, one teen died in a traffic accident in Johnston County. And the 18 deaths from 2009 to 2013 dropped the county’s ranking from first in the state to fourth.
The falling numbers are a triumph on one hand, but members of JoCo Teen Drivers say one death is one too many.
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Christopher McLeod is a JoCo Teen Driver and a senior at Johnston County Middle College High School. “It feels good to know we’ve made such a broad jump in improvement, but there was still one death last year, and in my eyes, we can do better than that,” he said.
“The ideal would be to have no teen deaths in a year ... so that’s my goal,” McLeod added. “Until we get there, that’s why I do what I do.”
JoCo Teen Drivers is a student-led group with chapters at each high school in the county. Each school has a leadership group of about 10 students who organize programs and activities to raise awareness and discourage reckless driving.
At some schools, the Grim Reaper pays the occasional visit. A student leaves class every hour, dresses in white and wears a sign saying he or she has died. The student then cannot speak for the rest of the day. (A student leaves every hour because a teen dies in a traffic accident every hour in this country.)
Other activities include school-wide scavenger hunts, fundraisers at basketball games and driving golf carts with special goggles that simulate impaired driving.
Students also track how many of their peers are wearing their seatbelts as they enter and leave school.
The work of JoCo Teen Drivers was on display last month at the county’s annual Teen Driving Summit, held at the Johnston County Agricultural Center. The summit is a chance for students to share ideas and best practices and to raise awareness.
Lynda Carroll is vice chairwoman of the Johnston County Teen Driving Committee, which was formed after the deaths in 2007 and started JoCo Teen Drivers. Carroll said having students talk to students is at the center of JoCo Teen Drivers, because students will listen to their peers when they might not listen to adults.
Johnston County got the idea from a similar effort in Texas, and now Johnston has become an example for other North Carolina counties, Carroll said.
“You can’t stop every teen death, unfortunately,” she said. “We would like to, but that’s not going to happen, but I do think we have helped with reducing the numbers.”
This year’s summit included many ways for people to learn about the effects of drunk and distracted driving. In one activity, participants tried to drive a toy car through an obstacle course of cups.
“It’s showing people that it’s not as easy to drive as it looks,” said Brianna Hardison, a sophomore at Clayton High School. “You have to pay attention to what you’re doing.”
In another activity, two sheriff’s deputies performed mock field sobriety tests, asking people wearing drunk goggles to walk in a straight line and stand on one leg.
The summit ended with two talks, including one by Garrett Prince. In 2012, while a 16-year-old student at Millbrook High School in Raleigh, Price drove drunk with his friend, Elizabeth Molloy, in the passenger seat. His Jeep hit a tree, and she died at the scene; he was injured and later served jail time.
“It really doesn’t matter what your track record is for this kind of behavior,” Prince said, “because it only takes one time to change your life forever.”
Prince said he regrets his decision every day and adds that he would still be in jail if not for the forgiveness of Molloy’s parents. He hopes others can learn from his mistake.
“You can easily cost someone their life, or you can cost yourself your own life if you don’t obey simple rules like wearing your seat belt or following the posted regulatory signs on the road,” Prince said. “Because they are laws; they’re not just suggestions.”
To learn more about JoCo Teen Drivers, visit jocoteendrivers.com.