On Saturday, just two days before the one-year anniversary of the death of 17-year-old Ryan Howell in a car wreck, Kari Poss gathered a group of teens sentenced to community service in Columbia County Juvenile Court to encourage them to drive safely.
"Nobody on this board is over the age of 19," Poss, Columbia County's Juvenile Court Traffic coordinator, said at the Saturday morning meeting, where she displayed photos of the 10 Columbia County teens who have died in car crashes in a two-year span. "Y'all are too young to lose."
Poss said she started the class to educate teens about the consequences of their driving decisions. All teens sentenced to community service in traffic court will attend the meeting, which will be held every six weeks.
"You try to come up with programs to make a difference," Columbia County Juvenile Court Judge Doug Flanagan said about the program.
Ryan Howell was the most recent teen to die in a car crash in Columbia County, on Feb. 27, 2005, while driving home from work. Columbia County Deputy Coroner Vernon Collins determined at the time that several factors contributed to the crash: inexperience, speed, darkness and rain.
"The leading killer (of teenagers) isn't drugs," Columbia County sheriff's Deputy Steven Leathers told Saturday's group of nearly 15 teens. "It isn't alcohol. It isn't AIDS. It isn't cancer. The leading killer among teenagers is car crashes."
Leathers attended the meeting to explain the Teen and Adult Responsibility Driving Act and to give insight as to what happens during a collision.
Donny Thigpen, a Columbia County Sheriff's Office employee at the Evans courthouse, said he knows all about consequences. Thigpen, 33, has spent nearly 12 years in a wheelchair, after being paralyzed in a drinking and driving-related crash.
"I was doing something I should not have been doing," Thigpen told the teens. "I knew better, but I did it anyway. ... I made the decision, and I have to live with it the rest of my life."
Thigpen believes, though his memory is sketchy from the wreck and alcohol, that a deer ran in front of him and he swerved to miss it on a road between Dearing and Thomson. Thigpen's small truck hit a tree, ejecting him and running him over while he was face-down in mud. Thigpen's spine was broken, and his ribs were torn from his spine. The crash collapsed one of his lungs and punctured the other.
Thigpen said he spent months in the hospital and in rehabilitation.
Nearly 12 years later, Thigpen still struggles with his injury, though he stays active by playing tennis, golf and basketball, and swimming and riding four-wheelers.
"I'll do anything," Thigpen said, adding he considers himself lucky that no one else was involved in the wreck that paralyzed him.
"I'll try anything once. I try to stay active. I always said I liked a good challenge. My whole life, I said if it is a challenge, then I like it.
"I think I said it one too many times. Now, I've got a challenge."
Thigpen passed around photos of the mangled truck he was pulled out of.
The teens left the meeting to finish their community service by picking up trash along the roads.
Poss said she hopes the informational meeting helped the teens make more responsible driving decisions.
"Your car is a weapon," Poss said.
"It is like a loaded gun. Sitting behind the wheel of it is like sitting ready to pull the trigger.''
One teen who attended the class and had been charged with failure to yield the right of way, causing a minor crash, said afterward that she has a new peace of mind about getting behind the wheel of a car.
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