Local News

Johnston County leads N.C. in auto-related teen deaths

Posted September 18, 2008 11:25 p.m. EDT
Updated September 21, 2008 7:57 p.m. EDT

— Speed might have been a factor in one crash that killed two young people in Johnston County on Wednesday evening, the state Highway Patrol said.

The area's growth, combined with winding rural roads, may be contributing factors in Johnston County's leading the state in auto-related teen deaths, officials say.

Brandon Lee Baker, 21, and Matthew Brandon Stewart, 17, died after a green Saturn they were riding in crossed the center line on Fellowship Church Road and hit a Jeep driven by an elderly woman around 8:30 p.m. Wednesday.

Stewart was the fourth Princeton High School senior to die in a car crash in the past 12 months. Baker was a graduate of Princeton.

"It's just hard, just to see that they're both gone," said Baker's brother, Tyler, who was a fellow senior at Princeton with Stewart.

In the past year, Tyler Baker has also lost three other classmates in car accidents.

“Speed is the leading cause of these crashes,” Capt. Everett Clendenin of the state Highway Patrol said.

Johnston County law enforcement officials say the number of auto-related teen deaths is alarming. In 2007, the county led the state with 11 fatalities.

In comparison, neighboring Harnett County had two fatalities, while Wake and Wayne counties each had one. A senior and a junior from Green Hope High School in Cary died Nov. 7 in a crash in Chatham County.

“We've just seen a higher percentage of teenagers killed in Johnston County,” Clendenin said.

Authorities say growth in the county, combined with winding rural roads to which teens are not paying enough attention, are factors in the high number of fatalities.

That's why Johnston County sheriff's deputies have stepped up patrols as part of Operation Safe Teens and are talking with the Johnston County school district about educational programs to try to reduce speeding and reckless driving.

“Everybody is saddened by this,” said Capt. Bengie Gaddis with the Johnston County Sheriff's Office. “We're not out there to rack up on charges and to write citations. We're out there to warn the kids to slow down and live."

The sheriff's office started Operation Safe Teens last September. As part of the campaign, deputies and state troopers patrol areas around high schools, looking for teens speeding or driving recklessly.

The program has helped, and the message of safe driving is getting out, Gaddis said, but unwise driving is still a huge problem.

“We love our youth here in this community and we're gonna do everything in our power to keep them here with us," Gaddis said.

In the past, officers typically issued warnings and contacted parents when a student was caught speeding or driving carelessly. Now, Gaddis said, officers are issuing more citations to show how serious the issue is.