Caution urged over weekend

COVINGTON -- Whether it's taking an extended vacation, heading to the lake or shopping at the mall, travel is a large part of Fourth of July festivities. Troopers with the Georgia State Patrol are urging motorists to be cautious and obey all traffic laws as troopers will be out in force over the 78-hour holiday period which began at 6 p.m. Thursday and ends at midnight on July 4.

Traffic estimates from the Georgia Department of Transportation's Crash Reporting Unit and the GSP are for 2,072 traffic crashes, 999 injuries and 18 traffic deaths over the weekend. Last year, there were 15 traffic deaths recorded during the holiday weekend. One of the fatal crashes was alcohol-related and eight of the fatal crash victims were not wearing a seat belt. Three of the people killed were motorcyclists.

Col. Bill Hitchens, commissioner of the Georgia Department of Public Safety, said GSP troopers and officers with the Department's Motor Carrier Compliance Division will be patrolling during the holiday weekend with a goal of keeping the holiday traffic (accident) count as low as possible.

"Enforcement personnel will be concentrating their efforts to locate impaired drivers on our roads as well as speeders and motorists who fail to buckle up," Colonel Hitchens said. "Our troopers and MCCD officers will be concentrating on the most common violations identified as contributing factors in fatal traffic crashes."

Local law enforcement agencies also plan to beef up patrols to keep the roadways safe, paying special attention to suspected DUI drivers.

"We'll increase our patrol and try to get out there to make sure the highways and interstates are safe. People are out having a good time and usually alcohol is involved," said Covington Police Department spokesman Lt. Wendell Wagstaff. "We'll be out in full force looking for that type of activity.

Newton County Sheriff's Office spokesman Cpl. Anthony Washington said deputies would also be on the lookout for speeders and those driving under the influence.

"Our normal patrol will be on with a heightened awareness level," he said. "We'll be conducting our regular holiday enforcement."

And, Director Bob Dallas of the Georgia Governor's Office of Highway Safety reminds motorists of new driving laws which include no texting and driving, no cell phone use for those under 18 and truck seat belt use.

"While the Georgia State Patrol and perhaps a few other agencies say at first they'll write warning tickets for texting violations, drivers should know that's a courtesy Georgia law doesn't require and it's meant to help educate the public about these new lifesaving measures. But at the same time, there may be other traffic enforcement agencies that decide their policy is to write tickets for the same offense from the very first week. ... The best practice now is for all drivers to start obeying the new texting laws right away to avoid a ticket, or worse a deadly crash," he said. "The Pickup Truck Safety Belt Law, already in effect since it was signed by Gov. Perdue on June 3, requires both drivers and passengers of pickup trucks to buckle up in their vehicles except for certain farming exemptions."

Hitchens said the calendar will play a part in traffic problems by affording more opportunity for travel over the long Fourth of July weekend.

"Anytime a holiday period falls on a weekend, there is an increased chance of encountering an alcohol impaired driver as you travel," Hitchens said. "Minimize distractions in your vehicle and be alert should you be forced to take evasive action to avoid a collision."

Troopers and MCCD officers are also participating through the weekend in Operation Zero Tolerance, the nationwide mobilization against impaired driving. Enforcement personnel will be conducting safety checks and concentrated patrols across the state aimed at intercepting impaired drivers before a traffic crash can occur.

The July Fourth holiday weekend is also an Operation C.A.R.E. weekend. Operation C.A.R.E., or Combined Accident Reduction Effort, encourages safe driving through high visibility enforcement of traffic laws and public education efforts. The program among state highway patrols and state police agencies is now in its 33rd year and is sponsored by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.

The highest number of July Fourth holiday traffic fatalities occurred in 1972 when 34 people were killed, and the lowest occurred in 1962 and 1984 when two people were killed.