07/27/10 — Highway Patrol says teen traffic deaths down across state

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Highway Patrol says teen traffic deaths down across state

By Nick Hiltunen
Published in News on July 27, 2010 1:46 PM

Although no one knows exactly why, teen deaths from car crashes are down 40 percent when comparing one-year periods in 2009 and 2010, the Highway Patrol reported Monday.

Highway Patrol spokesman Sgt. Jeff Gordon said that as of Monday, statewide, the Highway Patrol has investigated 28 deaths.

That is a 40 percent decrease from the 47 fatal traffic accidents involving teens in the 12 months before July 26, 2009, Gordon said.

Comparing and contrasting just two years of statistics is tricky business, but the Highway Patrol spokesman saw the drop in teen deaths as a positive sign.

"I don't know if it's a fluke -- it's kind of still too early to tell. It's kind of hard to put your thumb on it, and say it's connected to X-Y-Z. (The statistics) are connected to a lot of various different things."

What Gordon would like to believe, however, is that the reduced statistics are a direct result of the Operation Drive to Live campaign conducted in May and June near high schools, he said.

Sgt. Chris Owens of the Wayne County Highway Patrol post said he played a role in the program in the Moore- and Lenoir-County area before he transferred to Wayne County about a month ago.

"Statewide, that's what we kind of stepped up on as far as focusing on the roads that are traveled by students, and being visible in the morning and also in the evening," Owens said.

The sergeant said while focusing on traffic enforcement near high schools, troopers in Lenoir and Moore counties also talked with students.

"They liked seeing the Highway Patrol out there. I remember one student talking about how it reminded them to follow the rules of the law, and to be careful," Owens said.

The program also included educational activities in a variety of areas, including one that focused on "texting while driving," or using a cell phone to punch out text based messages behind the wheel.

Focusing on the dangers of mixing texting and driving are warranted, the sergeant said.

"One of the main problems that we have to deal with is distracted driving, specifically texting," the sergeant said.

To address the problem, the Highway Patrol has been operating an obstacle course that students try to navigate while tapping out a message using cell phone buttons.

The results are usually enlightening for students who believe, erroneously, that they possess extraordinary powers of multitasking, Gordon said. More than 30,000 students have participated in that educational program and others.

Gordon said the major obstacle to the Operation Drive to Live Campaign was manpower.

"(Troopers) also have to do our other job responsibilities, working the counties, and the interstates and rural roads, and investigating accidents that occur," Gordon said. "Sometimes that takes manpower away."

To supplement the Drive to Live campaign, extra officers from neighboring police forces in North Carolina's 100 counties were asked to fill in when necessary.

"We would also lend assistance across county lines ... if there was someone that could be spared," Gordon said.

As opposed to simply issuing tickets for violations, the campaign focused much of its efforts on teaching young drivers the proper ways of the road.

"It's more of an education thing, in a lot of ways, and actually being out there and being visible," Gordon said. "We're going to be looking for ways to prevent teenagers from dying on the highways. That's our whole goal here."

The spokesman also urged parents to become involved in promoting driving safety to their teenage youngsters.

"We kind of emulate the way that our parents drive. By setting a positive example, they could go a long way with the teen drivers," Gordon said.

Although he is not sure what to make of the numbers either, Owens said he saw the 40 percent reduction as a positive sign.

"I'm glad it's down," the sergeant said. "I hope we continue to reduce it. Everyone, not just only teens, everyone needs to be more safety conscious."