What police call an “exhibition of speed” cost a Vienna teenager his life last Thursday, when he lost control of his car and hit a tree.
Eric P. Johnson, 16, was driving westbound on Vale Road, when he lost control of his 2003 Mazda Protégé. A 16-year-old passenger was med-evac’d to Inova Fairfax Hospital for injuries.
Fairfax County Police Sgt. Rich Perez said an investigation into the accident is ongoing.
Perez said that Johnson was westbound on Vale Road from the intersection of Chain Bridge Road and Hunter Mill Road and was allegedly being tailgated by a 1988 Chevrolet Camaro driven by 19-year-old Christopher Lee Simms.
“Mr. Johnson was crossing on a double yellow line to pass a vehicle, when he went around an almost 90-degree curve,” Perez said. “Simms was still trailing Johnson as he tried to get back into his lane, which is when he lost control of the vehicle.”
Perez said Friday that there was no indication that road conditions were a factor in the accident. No new information was available Monday on the accident or the condition of the passenger.
Simms has been charged with reckless driving and was held on $7,500 bond after the crash.
SHORTLY AFTER the crash, friends and students at James Madison High School, where Johnson was a junior, began to place flowers at the tree, in front of Tom DePaul’s home, where the accident happened.
“I saw him lose control and hit the tree,” DePaul said. “It was awful.”
DePaul, who has an infant son of his own at home, was reluctant to describe the accident.
“It’s an image I can’t get out of my head,” he said.
“My heart and prayers go out to the families for those boys,” he said.
DePaul has seen students come by the tree to console each other and leave flowers, but “they’ve all been very respectful” of his home.
A group of students who were gathered at the tree declined to comment on the death of their classmate.
DePaul said at least five or six children under the age of 3 live in the area where the accident occurred. “There are at least 12 children at times when they’re crossing the street from the school or that play around here,” he said.
A resident of Vale Road for several years, DePaul said the signs in place to warn of the sharp curve simply aren’t enough to slow drivers down.
“There are no traffic-calming measures on this road,” he said. “If you want to exceed the speed limit, you can. It would be nice to see measures taken up like they have over on Oak Valley. They have speed humps over there.”
Both roads are maintained by the Virginia Department of Transportation.
“I don’t understand. They have the speed humps on Oak Valley, but not here on Vale,” he said. “We tried to get them before, but nothing happened.
“It would be nice to see something happen if it can prevent this kind of tragic thing from happening again.”
DePaul also said that while the tree may be more on his neighbor’s property than his, he’d may consider planting flowers at the base of the tree in memory of Johnson.
"IN THE STATE of Virginia, a student must complete 36 hours of classroom training, 14 hours in a behind-the-wheel program and at least 40 hours of driving practice with an adult,” said Rich Miller, an in-car driver’s education teacher for Fairfax County Public Schools.
“The earliest a teenager can get his or her license is 16 years and 3 months,” Miller said, because a person can get a learner’s permit at 15 1/2, and the permit must be held for at least nine months.
Part of the driver’s education curriculum is dedicated to driving in emergency conditions, Miller said.
“If a driver finds themselves in adverse conditions, we teach them a way to maintain control of the car,” he said.
The county offers an eight-hour course that teaches emergency driving skills, as well, Miller said. Skills taught in the course include practicing skid control, maintaining lane position, traction, and handling a vehicle through sharp curves.
Miller said he’s “positive” that driver’s education teachers will try to teach their students how to prevent a crash like the one last week
“They’ll take the time out of class not only to process the grief but also to process what happened, into future driving skills,” he said.
In addition, parents need to remember that their teenage drivers learn and mimic their parents' driving skills.
“We all either voluntarily or involuntarily get ourselves into situations like this all the time,” Miller said. “Parents should address this and act as good role models.
“My heart and prayers go out to the family,” he said.
"It's an unfortunate tragedy," said Pete Bendorf, Madison High's director of student activities on Monday. "For the majority of the student body, it's been a tough couple of days."
Funeral services took place on Tuesday.