PEMBROKE — A two-vehicle crash on Monday that killed a Pembroke Middle School student and her mother hit home for North Carolina Department of Transportation officials.
A newly formed task force supported by the department met for the first time on Thursday with an impossible goal but one that will be chased — eliminating deadly accidents in Robeson County. An average of 43 people have died in car accidents annually in Robeson County from 2012 to 2016, according to data gathered by Transportation Department.
They want that number to be zero.
Comprised of community leaders in the areas of law enforcement, education, health care and transportation, the Robeson County Vision Zero Task Force aims to address factors that lead to traffic fatalities.
“Those deaths are our friends and neighbors and even our family members,” Grady Hunt, a state Board of Transportation member and attorney for the Public Schools of Robeson County, said in a statement. “Simply put, these deaths are not acceptable.”
The task force includes Ken Sealey, Robeson County sheriff; Dr. Robin Cummings, chancellor of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke; Johnson Britt, district attorney; Shanita Wooten, interim superintendent at the local schools; Joanne Anderson, president and CEO of Southeastern Health; Sgt. Phillip Collins, N.C. Highway Patrol; Gail Albertson, transportation manager at Mountaire Farms; Kimberly Gold, president of Robeson Community College; and Ricky Harris, county manager.
Robeson County’s Vision Zero program serves as a pilot for similar initiatives throughout the state. Robeson County is the deadliest region in North Carolina in terms of fatal crashes per registered vehicle, according to state DOT data.
“We are committed to bringing all NCDOT resources to bear to help Robeson County reach their goal of zero deaths on our roadways,” said James Trogdon, secretary of the Transportation Department.
The task force held its meeting Thursday on the campus of The University of North Carolina at Pembroke. Several NCDOT officials spoke to the group about the program’s purpose and offered ideas for projects to jump-start the initiative.
Mark Ezzell, director of the North Carolina Governor’s Highway Safety Program, emphasized that the task force is solely responsible for the administration of the initiative.
“This is not going to be led by the Department of Transportation or the GHSP,” Ezzell said.
Rather than directing the operation, the NCDOT will serve as a “toolbox” to be utilized by the task force, Ezzell said. Resources such as data gathering, project implementation and expert consultations will be available through the department.
Brian Mayhew, state traffic safety engineer, said the implementation of Vision Zero in the county is partly based on long-term concerns with fatalities in the region.
“We’re not here because there were a lot of fatals last year,” Mayhew said. “We’re here because this is a persistent problem.”
In 2016, the most recent period from which data is available, 37 people died in car crashes in Robeson County. That represents a decline from 53 fatalities in 2015, but rises above the 32 that took place in 2014.
The task force is tasked with researching and providing educational resources for Robeson County residents that can help them avoid the dangerous habits that commonly lead to crashes.
Not wearing a seat belt, intoxication, speeding and lane departure were the most significant causes of crash fatalities in Robeson County from 2012 to 2016. Seat belts were the biggest concern because roughly 42 percent of the fatalities involved individuals who weren’t buckled in at the time of impact, higher than the state average of about 34 percent.
Collins said 854 child restraint violations were issued in the county in 2017.
When task force members asked Collins what could be done to help the Highway Patrol prevent accidents, he said the number of patrolmen on duty needs to be increased.
Collins said 24 officers are assigned to the county, a total that hasn’t changed for 22 years. He said more patrolmen are needed in order to help the unit operate proactively, rather than simply reacting to incidents.
Collins also spoke about the importance of continued support for the state’s DWI task force.
Although no executive action or votes were taken during the meeting, Collins’ remarks and other discussions among task force members helped the group set goals for its next meeting, which has not yet been scheduled.
The first goal was to invite state legislators to future meetings. The lawmakers will be able to address funding for the Highway Patrol and other parties. The group also agreed to get first responders, student groups at the university, faith-based organizations and other influential fixtures of the community involved in the initiative.
Grady Hunt said the ultimate goal is to provide enough opportunities for people throughout the region to learn about making the roads safer by developing appropriate driving habits.
“If we don’t then we are failing ourselves and, most importantly, we’re failing the community,” Hunt said.
Reach Brandon Tester at 910-816-1989 or [email protected]