Local News

Authorities: More work needed to slow speeding Johnston teen drivers

Posted August 28, 2015 3:35 p.m. EDT
Updated August 28, 2015 5:48 p.m. EDT

— Johnston County Schools has worked for years to drive down the number of deaths and injuries in vehicle crashes involving teens, but a Thursday afternoon wreck involving five Corinth Holders High School students shows more work is needed, authorities said.

According to the State Highway Patrol, an Acura driven by Fermin Rodriguez Jr., 16, of Zebulon, went off Thanksgiving Fire Department Road about a half-mile south of N.C. Highway 42, overturned in a soybean field and hit a utility pole.

Ana Gonzalez, 16, of Selma, was thrown from the back seat of the car and remained in critical condition Friday at WakeMed in Raleigh.

Rodriguez and his other three passengers – Jovanny Vargas, 16, of Selma, Sergio Garcia, 15, of Zebulon, and Nora Garcia Zuniga, 16, of Zebulon – were treated at WakeMed for injuries that weren't considered life-threatening.

Investigators said charges are pending against Rodriguez, who they said was driving 80 mph on a two-lane road with a posted speed limit of 55 mph when he lost control in a curve.

Johnston County authorities launched several programs in recent years to improve safety by teen drivers, such as JoCo Teen Drivers, which encourages teens to talk with each other about the importance of buckling up, slowing down and being smart behind the wheel, and StreetSafe, a mandatory defensive driving course for anyone under 21 who receives a traffic violation.

"We have seen results, but it's one of those things where it's a work in progress," said Jaime Long, a member of the steering committee for JoCo Teen Drivers. "Those teens know that, and they know they have to get out there every day."

In 2007, 11 Johnston County teens were killed in vehicle crashes. In 2013, there was only one such fatality. The Highway Patrol wasn't able to provide figures for 2014 or 2015 on Friday.

"We have made leaps and bounds in this particular county," said Lt. Jeff Gordon of the Highway Patrol.

Still, Gordon said, teen drivers still tend to speed, overcorrect and get easily distracted. He urged parents to drive home the safe driving message.

"As teen drivers, they're novice – they're young, they're naive at times – and studies have shown that the more people you put in a vehicle at that age, the more possibility that there's going to be a distraction," he said.

Rodriguez had his full provisional license, so he had no restrictions on the number of passengers he could have in his car, Gordon said.

Extra counselors were available Friday at Corinth Holders High.

"Our schools are families, so it does affect everyone when a student is involved," said Tracey Peedin Jones, a spokeswoman for Johnston County Schools. "Even though they were outside school at that time, we care about our children."