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Forum focuses on Johnston teen driving deaths

Elected officials, law enforcement officers, school representatives, students, parents and DOT officials came together to talk about stopping the trend of teenage drivers dying on county roads.

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SMITHFIELD, N.C. — Elected officials, law enforcement officers, school representatives, students, parents, state Department of Transportation officials, firefighters and emergency services providers came together Thursday evening to talk about stopping the trend of teenage drivers dying on Johnston County roads.
The county leads the state in the number of 15- to 24-year-olds who die in in automobile crashes. Last year, 11 teenagers died in car wrecks.

Several more have died this year, including Christy Baker's son.

“It would be a living hell on this earth,” she told the group about living without each person's child.

Brandon Baker, 21, and his best friend, Matthew Stewart, 17, were killed in a collision on Fellowship Church Road in September. The state Highway Patrol says another teen driver was speeding.

"We have got to stop that. We have got to show them this is reality, this is what can happen,” Baker said.

In the last three years, nearly 30 young people have died on Johnston County roads. Last year, drivers 21-years-old and under were cited for more than 500 driving while impaired charges, 1,400 seat-belt violations and more than 7,000 instances of speeding, troopers said.

"Somehow, we have just got to get a grip,” County Commissioner Tony Braswell said.

Smithfield Mayor Norman Johnson helped organize a four-hour Alive at 25 program earlier this month at town hall. Speakers addressed drinking and driving and talking and texting behind the wheel. The group was also shown images of real accident scenes.

“Teen drivers have so many distractions,” Braswell said.

There is also a growing population driving on small roads where it can be hard to maneuver a vehicle.

"You have a lot of rural roads with a lot of volume on them,” said DOT state traffic engineer Kevin Lacy.

The forum Thursday night focused on more safe driving initiatives, like a new program in Johnston County schools that would require more driver training. Parking passes at high schools would be suspended for speeding tickets and seat-belt violations.

Deputies would also tighten patrols around school events. There was also a push for improvements to county roads and adding rumble strips near intersections.

The Alive at 25 program is free for anyone 16 to 19, though each student has to pay $5.50 for instructional materials. The town is offering two more classes – on Nov. 18 and Dec. 9. To register, or for more information, contact the town at 919-934-2116.

The course is also available through the Safety and Health Council of North Carolina at 17 community colleges across the state, including Raleigh, Clinton, Charlotte and Wilmington. More information is available by calling 919-209-2213. The cost is $50.