With gas prices under $2 a gallon and Christmas falling on a Friday, law enforcement and highway safety officials are bracing for what is expected to be one of the busiest traffic weekends in memory.
They also have a warning for those who will be on the roads during the holiday period — buckle up, don’t drink and drive and don’t text and drive.
“Our goal is to make it safe for everybody to have a merry Christmas and a happy holidays,” said Effingham County Sheriff Jimmy McDuffie.
McDuffie, along with representatives from the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, Effingham deputies, Georgia State Patrol troopers and officers from several other departments, announced law enforcement efforts to enforce traffic safety and keep impaired drivers off the road.
“The numbers are clear —don’t drink and drive, make sure your seat belt is on, make sure your children are properly, watch your speed and most importantly, put your cell phone down,” said GSP Capt. Chris Wright, the new commander of Troop I. “If alcohol is going to be in your plans, designate a sober driver well ahead of time. It only takes one bad decision for tragedy to strike a family. Troopers will not hesitate to arrest an impaired driver.”
To date, the number of fatalities on Georgia’s roads is the most since 2007, when 1,641 traffic deaths were record. That number had decreased each year, until 2015. As of Dec. 21, Georgia’s road and highway death toll had reached 1,331.
“A lot of it is distracted driving,” said Powell Harrelson of the GOHS. “A lot of what we’re seeing is single-car crashes where people are not paying attention to the road. That’s a big rise in the numbers.”
Added McDuffie: “Our fatalities throughout the entire state have been horrific. A lot of it has to do with unbelted drivers and cell phones. You cannot drive and be on that phone and paying attention to the road. Texting and driving is as bad as drinking and driving. If you’re paying attention to that phone, you’re not paying attention to what’s going on in front of you.”
To that end, the ECSO has been employing a new tactic in catching folks sending and reading texts behind the wheel. They have an unmarked car on patrol, with a deputy taking pictures of drivers who are texting — even texting while at a red light is illegal. The information is forwarded to a chase car down the road, and that deputy pulls over the driver in question.
Through an app on his cell phone, the sheriff can listen to the 911 calls for the sheriff’s office.
“About seven to eight a day are reckless driver calls,” he said. “And they’re driving all over the road.”
McDuffie also pleaded with drivers to refrain from drinking or at least procure a sober driver for the trip home.
“You can get a driver to bring you home,” he said. “We can find somebody. Take somebody with you who is going to be a sober driver. There are smart phone apps you can get from AAA.
“If you come to Effingham County and we catch you drinking and driving, you are going to jail,” the sheriff added. “We just built a new jail. We’ve only been in it a year. We’ve got the vacancy sign up. We’ve got room. We’re hoping that’s not going to be the case.”
An arrest for DUI will keep a person in jail for at least four hours. With Christmas on Friday, and depending on the charges, a person arrested for DUI could be in jail until Monday morning, McDuffie warned.
There were 14 traffic fatalities during the 2014 Christmas holiday period. Throughout 2014, there were 8,931 vehicle accidents involving alcohol, with 5,250 injuries and 165 deaths.
Nationwide, there were 10,076 deaths from alcohol-related crashes in 2013. There were 733 fatalities in December 2013 in which a driver had a blood alcohol content level of .08 or higher.
In 2013, there were 1,035 crashes in Effingham County, nearly as many as the number in 2011 and 2012 combined. The accidents led to 305 injuries and 14 deaths.
Wright said state troopers will be out “in full force.”
“We will be focusing on drivers not obeying the speed limit, not buckled properly. Distracted driving is one thing we will be focused on,” he said. “It is a little bit of a challenge to catch people who are on their cell phones. But we can look for people who are looking down and not looking forward. If you’re looking at the floor board or at the seat, that indicates you may be distracted.”