Politics & Government

Ashley has been gone nearly 9 years, but the car she died in is still saving lives

When the state insurance commissioner holds a news conference Tuesday to promote a proposed ban on using hand-held cellphones while driving, he will be standing in front of the car Ashley LeeAnn Johnson was driving when she died.

Ashley was a 16-year-old sophomore at Buncombe County Early College and was driving to a tutoring job when she crossed the center line and hit a truck head-on. Investigators determined that she was trying to read a text message on her phone when she was killed.

Ashley’s father, Amos Johnson, initially planned to have the two-door BMW crushed and out of his life forever. But then he began asking around about whether someone might take the car from place to place to show the dangers of using a cellphone behind the wheel.

“I wanted people to see what could happen if you’re texting or retrieving a text or being distracted,” Johnson said in a phone interview from Arden, near Asheville, where he lives and works as a contractor. “My daughter’s car is the outcome. This is what could happen to you, and I wanted people to know that and see it.”

About two weeks after Ashley died in May 2010, Johnson donated the crumpled car to VIP for a VIP Inc., a nonprofit, volunteer organization founded by Greensboro firefighters in 1998. The group reattached the roof that firefighters had cut from the BMW to free Ashley, then put the crumpled car, the air bag still deployed, on a trailer with signs explaining what happened to her.

More than 64,500 students have seen Ashley’s car at schools where VIP for a VIP also does graphic re-enactments of car crashes, right down to the parents being told their child is dead, said David Hood, a retired Greensboro firefighter and member of the group’s board.

“We’re all firemen, and we were saying ‘If kids could just see some of the stuff we see out here, maybe they’d make better decisions,’” Hood said in an interview.

VIP for a VIP (the name is short for Vehicle Injury Prevention for a Very Important Person) has three other smashed vehicles from real accidents that it keeps on trailers at Greensboro fire houses when they’re not on display somewhere, Hood said. When the group does re-enactments, it gets cars or trucks from salvage yards and builds different narratives around them.

Hood says the group has two volunteer re-enactment teams, in Guilford and Wake counties, that have appeared 324 times at schools in 53 counties.

“You can tell people something all day long,” he said, “but when you can show them something real, it has more of an impact.”

Phone ban

Causey and state Rep. Kevin Corbin, a Republican from Macon County, are holding Tuesday’s press conference in support of House Bill 144, the Hands-Free North Carolina Act.

The bill would prohibit drivers from using a hand-held phone to talk, play games, watch video or access the internet while driving, including while stopped at a traffic light. Drivers caught violating the law face a $100 fine the first time, with higher fines and points on the driver’s license that could increase insurance rates for subsequent violations.

It is already illegal for school bus drivers and drivers under 18 to talk on a hand-held cellphone, and no driver is permitted to text and drive, under laws passed after Ashley’s death. But law enforcement agencies say enforcing the texting ban is difficult, because drivers are still allowed to hold a phone and consult it for directions or talk on it.

“Distracted driving has become one of the leading causes of automobile accidents, along with speeding and driving while intoxicated,” Mike Causey, the state insurance commissioner, said in a statement. “Unless we take corrective action now, we’ll see accidents increase that will take our loved ones and drive automobile insurance rates higher and higher.”

Ashley Johnson’s car will remain outside the Insurance Department’s building on North Salisbury Street, across from the Legislative Building, through this week.

Amos Johnson says VIP for a VIP has kept in touch over the years, occasionally letting him know where the car will be on display.

“First time I saw it somewhere, I was saddened by it,” he said. “And I was delighted on the other hand, because I knew if kids or anybody looked at it they would at least think twice.”

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Richard Stradling covers transportation for The News & Observer. Planes, trains and automobiles, plus ferries, bicycles, scooters and just plain walking. Also, #census2020. He’s been a reporter or editor for 32 years, including the last 20 at The N&O. 919-829-4739, rstradling@newsobserver.com.