Deadly Distractions: Keeping young people safe behind-the-wheel

Just one day into her senior year, Lee County High School student Anne Marie Eubanks was...
Just one day into her senior year, Lee County High School student Anne Marie Eubanks was ejected from her car during a traffic accident and died. (Source: WALB)
Published: Oct. 25, 2017 at 4:57 PM EDT|Updated: Feb. 27, 2018 at 4:53 PM EST
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LEE CO., GA (WALB) - Just one day into her senior year, Lee County High School student Anne Marie Eubanks was ejected from her car during a traffic accident and died.

The 17-year-old was not wearing a seatbelt.

While we will never know for sure just what caused the young driver to leave the roadway in broad daylight, the elements involved in Eubanks' fatal crash are becoming more common in deadly wrecks across our state.

When the last bell rings after a full and busy day at Lee County High School the students' energy is high, even carefree, as they exit campus.

But for the faculty, the feelings are a bit different.

"It's a part of our culture to worry about them and the decisions they are making all of the time because what they do affects the community," said Lee County High School Principal Karen Hancock.

In plain sight of the student parking lot stands a memorial, a permanent reminder of the effects these young people have on a community.

"It wasn't meant to be just for students that were driving. But, unfortunately, most of the students we lose, that is the reason," said Hancock.

She lost her life on a quiet stretch of Philema Road on a Saturday morning in early August.

In an outpouring of grief, a song was written for her.

Her kindness and friendship remembered in many ways, from memorials to moments of silence.

Yet, less than 48-hours after Eubanks' death, a senior classmate got a Super Speeder ticket on his way to school. Rushing to school at a speed in excess of 85 mph.

"It was shocking. We were surprised. We expected there to be some cognizant thought that the students would put their seatbelts on, slow down, be extremely careful behind the wheel. What this meant to us, is that while it did have an impact for many of students, some it did not," said Hancock.

Kyle Lentz, Lee County's Fire Safety Educator, said officials have identified a common problem.

"One of the key things we are seeing is seatbelt problems. They are not being used like they should," said Lentz.

And, he, in coordination with Lee County High School, conducted a secret seatbelt check a week ago.

"The students are not aware of the survey at this time," said Lentz.

But, the results are in, and the numbers are startling.

On the morning of the secret seatbelt survey, 112 student drivers entered student parking not wearing a seatbelt.

"There are 458 students that are permitted to park. So that is 24% of our students that arrived to school that day that did not have on seatbelts. That is something we are going to address," said Lentz.

It's a question that is reaching the highest office in Georgia.

The smartphone has admittedly changed the world, for better and for worse.

When it comes to distracted driving, every time a device goes off, it can easily draw a person's attention away from the road.

The consequences of that decision to turn away, even for a moment is costing lives, and more often young lives every day.

It's a problem we all need to pay attention to.

The Lee County community is using every means available to make a lasting impression on young minds about the consequences of dangerous driving habits.

"I am part of a reenactment team. I joined in 8 years ago," said Lentz.

Lentz helps organize Lee County High School's life-like reenactments each spring.

Students watch from a safe distance as first responders act out a deadly car wreck scene, seeing both the physical and the emotional wreckage bad choices create.

"That is what these reenactments do. It is my purpose to give them a second chance, let them learn from these mistakes," said Lentz. "My son didn't get a second chance. He was killed in a car wreck at the age of 16."

In the summer of 2008, after a day of swimming in the creek with friends Cole Lentz was killed instantly when he made a u-turn on Forrester Parkway and was broadsided.

It was reported that he and his two young passengers were not wearing seatbelts.

"The people who are now 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 years old, we have had a seatbelt law for all of those years. They left the hospital after being born in a child passenger safety seat. They were buckled up in a car, and now we are seeing a lot of seatbelt usage dropping in our young drivers and we don't understand why," said Harris Blackwood.

Blackwood, who leads the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, said in well over half of the traffic deaths in Georgia this year, the occupant was NOT wearing a seatbelt.

"A car in the hands of a young person is a wonderful thing, in the hands of someone distracted, it is a lethal weapon," said Blackwood.

Very lethal.

Traffic fatalities jumped 33% in 3 years, and mostly in young people, following nine years of decline.

And of the 1,238 traffic deaths so far in 2017, 60% of people were not wearing seatbelts.

"Some of the lowest numbers we have had since records began being kept, and then suddenly we began seeing this spike, and we kept watching and we kept watching, and more and more of them are symptomatic of distraction," said Blackwood.

Now, state lawmakers are working on a bill expanding the state's texting and driving law, requiring a hands-free device in all cars.

"New York state did it a number of years ago. There wasn't a dramatic drop-off but there hasn't been a dramatic increase. It stopped the increase in the number of fatalities, which is a good thing," said Blackwood.

The bill evolved from fines increasing in June 2013, to a mandatory 4-month license suspension for those with a probationary license in November 2014.

"What we are trying to do is make it a very clear-cut situation. If there is a phone in your hand, you are in violation of the law if you are a driver. And we think that is the next best step. And, we will have to see if the General Assembly has the will to do that," said Blackwood.

Even then, officials are struggling to find the answer.

"We are trying to do it the best we can. Nobody has the magic elixir to fix this problem," said Blackwood.

In the meantime, there are dedicated people on the frontlines of the issue, like Kyle Lentz.

"When you lose a child part of your purpose is lost," said Lentz

Cole enjoyed being the Trojan mascot, remembered for his sense of humor and caring heart.

He died, but his father is making sure it wasn't in vain.

"When this happened, I choose to become a firefighter, I went to school," said Lentz. "That started my purpose."

That purpose: saving young lives.

"I think (my son) would agree with what I am doing. I really do. Too bad he is not here to help, but he is the motivation behind what happens, so in a way, he is here with me, yeah." said Lentz.

Lentz helps facilitate Lee County High School's new SADD chapter, which began after Anne Marie Eubank's death.

SADD stands for Students Against Destructive Decisions.

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