Local News

Teen Drivers Still Not Getting Safety Message

Posted March 10, 2008 4:59 p.m. EDT
Updated March 11, 2008 6:43 a.m. EDT

— Another memorial banner sat on a table in the lobby of Princeton High School on Monday for students to write messages for another classmate whose life had been cut short.

This time, the words "We'll miss you" were for Katlyn Bell, who died in a fatal car wreck Sunday evening in Smithfield.

The honors student – president of the Beta Club — and member of the yearbook staff was supposed to graduate in the spring and major in interior design at Meredith College.

But Sunday night, according to the North Carolina Highway Patrol, she pulled her car in front of a Ford Explorer at the intersection of Brogden and Old Sanders roads. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Bell, 18, was the third senior at the school killed in a fatal wreck in less than a year.

In September, Gilbert Michael Martin, 17, was killed in a single-vehicle crash – authorities blamed excessive speed and worn tires. In April, James Cook, 20, was on his way to pick up his prom tuxedo when he ran a stop sign and was hit by a pickup truck and killed.

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.

Authorities say growth in the county combined with winding rural roads, where students are not paying enough attention, are factors in the high rate of fatalities.

That's why Johnston County sheriff's deputies say they are stepping up patrols as part of Operation Safe Teens and talking with the Johnston County School District about educational programs to reduce speeding and careless and reckless driving.

"We're going to keep doing everything in our power to try to get that number down to zero," said Capt. Bengie Gaddis with the Johnston County Sheriff's Office.

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 it's still a huge problem and some teen drivers are not listening.

"Right now, we're going to start more of an aggressive campaign," 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 fully enforcing traffic laws and issuing more citations to show how serious the issue is.

Last week, Gaddis said, an officer stopped a student going 93 mph in a 55 mph zone.

With Princeton's prom scheduled for next week, school officials have already started talking with students about driving safely that night. And, Gaddis said, extra deputies will be on the roads, as well.

"We want them to live," Gaddis said. "We want to save their lives, as well as other lives of other people out here on the highway."