Operational changes for Kennesaw attraction after teenager’s death 

Intersection of Ben King Road where teen was killed

Intersection of Ben King Road where teen was killed (All photos by Rebecca Gaunt)

By Rebecca Gaunt

The death of a Harrison High School senior has led to changes in how the popular Kennesaw attraction Lights of Joy will operate moving forward.

Olivia Pugh, 17, was trying to experience some holiday cheer Friday night when an SUV hit her and threw her to the side of the road. She was crossing Ben King Road with her friends in the unlighted crosswalk by Big Shanty Elementary School at the time. She was transported to Wellstar Kennestone Hospital where she died on Sunday.

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The driver has been charged with vehicular homicide and DUI.

Richard Taylor, the Lights of Joy homeowner, told the Courier that the night of the accident, there was a security guard and a traffic director at the designated parking area, but Lights of Joy does not police or control the area by the school where the accident occurred.

The road is operated by the city of Kennesaw, but the property is in unincorporated Cobb County. 

Ross Cavitt, the communications director for Cobb County, told the Courier that following the accident, Lights of Joy management, the county, and the city discussed next steps.

Lights of Joy applied for a permit from the fire marshal for the display and will “collaborate with local law officials to develop a comprehensive traffic and road safety plan detailing measures for managing traffic, flow, parking, pedestrian safety, and emergency vehicle access,” Cavitt said in an email.

Other stipulations of the permit require crowd management and an attendance counting method. 

Futures Church, located across the street, is the official site of parking for Lights of Joy. Visitors can park there for $5. There is no marked crosswalk at that location. However, some visitors opt to park for free at the school, less than a half mile away.

Kennesaw resident Jason Acree and his family also went to Lights of Joy Friday and parked at the school. They arrived on the scene of the accident shortly after it happened. Acree said he put his jacket over Pugh as they waited for medics.

He is relieved that there will be a safety plan in place for the future.

“There is a degree of responsibility that they need to help with pedestrian safety in that area,” Acree said. “This is a special event that we do like. It brings great joy to the area, and the people come to see it. We should support and encourage it, but we also need to make sure there is safety in place.”

According to its website, Lights of Joy is the largest residential light display in Georgia. Since 1988 it has grown to 1.2 million lights with 700 feet of road frontage. It draws thousands of visitors and was featured on ABC’s Great Christmas Light Fight in 2019.

Pugh’s family has created the Olivia Pugh Memorial Scholarship which will go to a student at Harrison High School.

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