Johnston County isn't the largest in North Carolina, but over the past four years 33 teens have died in road accidents there. That's the second highest in the state, and far beyond the rates Johnstonians should be seeing.
They are not sitting back, however. A task force recently proposed a wide-ranging plan to address the situation. Unlike some states, Johnston officials admit that some deaths will still likely occur; they just want to make them as infrequent as possible. The county's strategy is going to require the efforts of the whole community, however.
One aspect of the program is a teen-to-teen education initiative. As readers of articles on this site have read, these allow the use of peer pressure for positive ends. It does require the willingness of young graduates of driver education programs to be civic-minded enough to make it work.
Grown ups will play a role, too. A teen driving safety officer has been appointed and a group designated to oversee the reform efforts. The task force has also called for more stringent driving school standards and increased patrols by Johnston County law enforcement agencies.
The ability to change standards of driving education
courses at a local level is a unique feature of North Carolina government. The state legislature funds programs conducted through the school districts but does not institute very many guidelines. This can be be both a blessing and a curse for local efforts.
In Johnston County, it affords lawmakers the flexibility to make changes that address local scenarios like their elevated fatality rate. In other areas, the budget crisis could create new problems. Legislators have had serious talks about cutting funding to driver education programs. They say families may need to pay for alternatives like online driving schools themselves, and the savings will then be used for needed road construction and maintenance throughout North Carolina.
No one knows whether or not those plans will come to fruition, but teens will find new driving simulators throughout the high schools in the county, but they will also push the same state legislators who are concerned about budget deficits. Their goal: increase the amount of behind-the-wheel training required for North Carolina teens.
They also want stiffer penalties for teens who complete driver education
programs and then choose to speed, text or otherwise use their cell phones. The recommendation from the steering committee is to temporarily revoke the licenses of the students, and increase their knowledge of what happens when poor choices are made behind the wheel.
Whether it will have an effect remains to be seen. Johnston County Sheriff Steve Bizzell attended the funeral of the most recent victim of poor teen driving and saw a variety of infractions made by younger attendees.
"Young people who were leaving the funeral home were not wearing their seat belts. And then during the funeral procession, they were passing each other," he told the News-Observer. "I'm telling you, they ain't getting it, y'all."