Codey Rutherford, right, prepares to drive a golf cart on a closed course while wearing DWI goggles. Bryan McDouglad, left, of the South Carolina National Safety Council, was on hand to supervise.
SMITHFIELD -- When Joel Feldman talks to young people about the car crash that killed his daughter, he usually takes an informal survey. Whose parents, he asks, drive distracted?
Most of the time, he said, students’ hands shoot up.
“We’re taking risks when we drive, but we’re also teaching our kids that it’s OK to take those risks,” Feldman said.
On April 20, Feldman was one of several speakers at the state’s first teen-driving safety summit, hosted by Johnston County high school students and Johnston Community College.
In the summit’s opening session, Feldman appealed to parents to set good examples for their children. His daughter Casey, he said, was hit by an adult driver who ran a stop sign as he reached across the dash to adjust his GPS.
Feldman, a Pennsylvania attorney, admitted that he used to drive distracted. “It wasn’t until Casey was killed that it dawned on me,” he said. “I think that’s part of the problem.”
Feldman was joined on stage by Wil Craig, an accident victim featured in AT&T’s national ad campaign against texting and driving. Craig was in a car that swerved off the road as the driver sent a text message.
The accident ended his military career and left him in a coma for eight weeks. He still copes with the effects of traumatic brain injury.
“My plans are all over at this point,” he said, addressing teens in the crowd. “I don’t want you to make the same mistakes that (hurt) me.”
Other speakers included Lisa Mozingo, a Goldsboro woman who was paralyzed in a car accident in 2009. State troopers and paramedcs also talked with attendees. AT&T and Allstate had exhibits simulating distracted and drunk driving.
The summit was the brainchild of JoCo Teen Drivers, a student group fighting distracted driving – that is, driving while talking on the phone, sending text messages or doing anything that divides a driver’s attention.
Six years ago, Johnston led all other counites in North Carolina in the number of teen driving deaths – 11 teens died in 2007, many of them because of distracted driving.
That number fell to two last year thanks in part to the student group’s efforts to spread awareness among peers. County officials have been supervising and providing support.
Sheriff Steve Bizzell, who was in attendance, said deputies working in school zones have noticed a decrease in risky driving by among teens. Parents and teachers are getting the brunt of the enforcement now, he said.
“Something’s working – we just have to keep up the progress,” Bizzell said.
The county still has a ways to go though. Thomas Lee, senior coordinator of Street Safe, a defensive-driving course for young traffic offenders, said inattention at the wheel is still the biggest problem he sees with young people.
Cary Lane Cockrell is a school district employee who helped students put on the summit. Though organizers eventually want to invite students from across the state, they started small, Cockrell said. The summit drew people from 10 counties, including Wake, Wayne, Vance and Robeson.
Cockrell wants to have a statewide summit every two years, which should give organizers enough time to raise money and advertise the event across the state.
One of the main goals is to help other school districts start their own teen-driving programs. Julia Beth Worley, a Princeton High School student, said starting a new chapter doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. It can start with something as simple as announcements on the P.A. system, she said.
“You can make it as big or as small as you want it to be,” Worley said. “It’s just about getting your message to the community.”