For the first time in several years, Columbia County officials can brag that no teens died on Columbia County roads in 2006.
"This is the first time I can remember in a long time that we didn't have any juveniles involved in fatalities," Columbia County Sheriff Clay Whittle said. "I can't remember the last time that was."
A string of teen traffic deaths spanning the past few years makes the landmark especially sweet, officials say. From the Feb. 28, 2003, death of Lakeside High School's Brandon Layton to the Feb. 27, 2005, death of Greenbrier's Ryan Howell, 10 teens died on county roads.
Whittle attributes the decline in teen traffic deaths to a program called STOPPED, which the sheriff's office began in August 2005 and was implemented in the court system by Juvenile Court Judge Doug Flanagan in 2006.
"He (Flanagan) is one of the most innovative judges I've ever seen," Whittle said.
Flanagan began "volunteering" for the STOPPED program as part of sentences for all teens attending court for traffic violations.
"Giving that child a $200 fine is nothing if the parent is paying the fine," Flanagan said, adding he looks for sentences that punish the teen driver. "Just fining them doesn't work, not at that age."
The STOPPED program, which stands for Sheriff Telling Our Parents and Promoting Educated Drivers, requires deputies to send a report card to parents who participate in the program by putting a sticker on the windshield of their vehicle. If their car is driven by anyone under age 21 and is stopped for any reason by an officer, the card describing the circumstances of the stop - including the reason the car was pulled over, who was driving the vehicle and how many people were in the car - is mailed to parents.
Currently, more than 130 parents have registered 240 vehicles in the program. "The sticker is easy to spot and when I see them riding down the road, they are behaving themselves and I know it is because they are making a conscious effort to behave themselves because they know that sticker is back there," Whittle said.
Flanagan said that in addition to joining the STOPPED program, teens in traffic court are usually required to forfeit their driver's license and they get community service. Half the day is spent picking up garbage, and the other is spent in an education class where Juvenile Court and sheriff's office representatives talk to teens about the importance of driving safely and the 10 teens who lost their lives in a short time frame.
"The purpose of this program is to keep children alive and let them understand that when you drive a vehicle, it can be dangerous and you need to think about it," Flanagan said.
Flanagan said about 75 percent of teens attending traffic court because they were involved in wrecks have been driving less than six months. Inexperience, speed and lack of attention often contribute to wrecks involving new drivers, he said.
"The speed creeps up on them because they are too busy interacting with their buddy, whether it is girl or boy, it doesn't matter," Whittle said, adding that the law prohibits passengers other than family members from being in the vehicle for the first six months that a teen has a driver's license.
To get more information about the STOPPED program, call the sheriff's office Community Services Unit at (706) 541-3985. Registration forms also can be printed out, completed and mailed in by visiting the Community Services Unit Web site at www.columbiacountyso.org.
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