Expect to see Georgia State Patrol troopers and Department of Natural Resources personnel out in force for the next few days.
State troopers and DNR law enforcement officers said Monday they will be out on patrol to make sure the state’s roads and waterways are safe for the Fourth of July weekend. And with the holiday falling on a Thursday, that means a long weekend ahead for the state’s Operation Zero Tolerance: Land or Water.
“People now have not just one or two days off, they’ll have four or five days,” said Capt. Billy Hitchens, an Effingham County native and commander of the GSP’s Troop I. “It gives us more days of having people driving impaired or dangerous driving.”
Capt. Hitchens also said that if motorists see law enforcement personnel on the road, they’ll opt not to do such things as speed, drink and drive or text while driving.
“What we hope is that if they do pass us, and we don’t see a violation, that if someone sends them a text, it can wait until they pull over or pass the phone to a passenger and let the passenger read it,” he said.
Officers will be focusing on finding impaired drivers through patrols and roadchecks throughout the weekend. The holiday weekend begins Wednesday at 6 p.m. and ends at midnight Sunday, a span of 102 hours.
When a holiday period stretches over Friday and Saturday nights, Hitchens warned, the chances of being on the road with impaired drivers are greater. Warm weather also may lead to more alcohol consumption and lead to more chances of encountering an impaired driver.
Last year’s July 4th holiday period was 30 hours long and two fatalities were reported across the state’s roads. There were 21 road fatalities during the 2011 Fourth of July holiday period.
“When we spout out statistics, one of the things we don’t talk about is that’s somebody’s wife or child or father or son,” Hitchens said, “so there’s a real importance for people to drive as safely as they possibly can.”
Impaired drivers won’t be the only ones law enforcement personnel will be seeking — they’re also going after impaired boaters. Gov. Nathan Deal signed into action what is known as the Jake and Griffin Prince BUI Law, which has lowered the blood-alcohol limit for those operating watercraft to .08. That brings it in line with the limit for motor vehicle drivers.
“That has helped tremendously to stop boating under the influence,” said Sgt. Mark Carson of the DNR. “We’ve seen a trend — we’re seeing more people have designated drivers. I think it’s starting to catch on.”
DNR rangers have arrested 86 people this year for BUI, with seven arrests just last weekend. A U.S. Coast Guard study last year concluded that alcohol contributed to 8 percent of boating accidents but led to 17 percent of all boating fatalities.
Carson pointed out that removing one person from the water for BUI also could mean one less person who is DUI on the road.
“We’ll make sure everyone is boating safe and driving safe,” he said.
Capt. Hitchens said state troopers and other law enforcement personnel will be on the lookout for DUIs and seatbelt violations. Carson also urged boaters to follow the guidelines for safe boating.
“We will make sure everyone has a life jacket, and wear the life jacket, please. Having the life jacket on shows it will save lives. Make sure that for every person on the boat there is a life jacket.”
Carson also said boaters should have a fire extinguisher on board and be prepared to follow the rules of the road on the water, urging them to keep the speed down and be aware of their surroundings.
“Make you have your lights on at night where people can see and remember that boats don’t have brakes,” he said. “It’s harder to stop.”
Hitchens added that education is as important as enforcement for drivers and passengers.
“If they know we’re going to be out there, maybe it will change some of their thought processes, hopefully make them plan before they go or get a designated driver,” he said.
Traffic, particularly on I-95 and to and from places having events over the weekend, is expected to be heavy, and Hitchens suggested drivers keep that in mind.
“You’re liable to run into slow-and-go traffic,” he said. “If something does happen, it doesn’t take long for the roads to back up. Do expect some delays with heavy traffic.”
Hitchens also suggested that if a driver is tired or on a long stretch of driving to stop and refresh. That also would be an opportune time to send or read any text messages with anyone expecting their arrival “so you can concentrate and leave both hands on the wheel.”