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Drive safely, arrive alive

By Michael Beadle

Even with the holidays over, traffic safety is still a major priority for public safety agencies and law enforcement.

The district attorney’s office for Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties (North Carolina’s 30th Prosecutorial District) announced this week that it would be establishing a new prosecution team to combat dangerous and impaired drivers. Assistant District Attorneys Reid Taylor and Pam Wilcox Smith will be focusing their efforts on identifying, trying and convicting defendants in traffic courts that have been charged with impaired driving and dangerous driving. Taylor and Smith will offer workshops for local law enforcement officers on the various aspects of DWI investigations and trials and will also work with officers in conducting DWI checkpoints to deter unlawful driving.

“Impaired driving continues to be a problem in North Carolina,” District Attorney Mike Bonfoey stated in a press release. “Despite the efforts to focus attention on this problem, people still choose to drink and drive.”

The N.C. Highway Patrol was out in full force along with local law enforcement agencies over the holiday season to enforce traffic safety on the roads. The statewide “Booze It and Lose It” campaign aimed at curbing drunk and impaired driving went into effect the weekend before Thanksgiving and lasted until Jan. 2. Meanwhile, the nationwide Operation Life Saver program had every available member of the N.C. Highway Patrol out on the highways enforcing safe driving to reduce speeding and car wrecks. According to figures from the latest “Booze It and Lose It” campaign, 3,575 drivers in North Carolina were changed with impaired driving, including 69 drivers in the 30th District, which includes Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties.

In 2004, North Carolina had the fifth highest number of motor vehicle accidents among the 50 states with 1,557 deaths. Beyond the tragedy of losing a family member or friend, car crashes also cost North Carolina taxpayers more than $9 billion a year.

According to a report from the University of North Carolina Highway Safety Research Center, there were 3,004 car crashes in Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties in 2003 resulting in 22 fatalities and 1,705 injuries.

Trying to prevent these crashes is a full-time, year-round job for law enforcement agencies and traffic safety organizations.

Traffic safety experts prefer to use the word “crash” rather than “accident” because car wrecks are not mere accidents; they are often avoidable. Many injuries and deaths could be prevented if drivers would only wear their seatbelts, chose not to speed or drive while impaired, and follow traffic safety laws, according to Marsha Tate, health educator at the Haywood County Heath Department.

Speed is often cited as the number one cause of car crashes.

“People are just driving beyond their capabilities,” Tate said.

Tate has been working with the local high school chapters of Students Against Destructive Decisions for years and has recently worked with teens to develop public service programs that show the dangers of underage drinking and driving while impaired. Local SADD chapters sign up students for Prom Promise, a pledge students sign to ensure they will not drink or take drugs over prom weekend — or, hopefully, ever. Tate also oversees the Haywood County program called Teens Against Booze Under 21, or TABU-21. However, student interest in the SADD clubs has dipped in recent years, and the Haywood County Health Department continues to struggle to get a regular, full-time position that would help advocate teen safety issues.

“I wish we had more consistent, ongoing education,” Tate said.

Drivers face more distractions on the road thanks to cell phones, music technology and fast food lifestyles. Glancing down to dial or answer a cell phone, fumbling around for a CD or iPod, or trying to eat while driving can all take valuable split seconds away from seeing an oncoming car. It may cause a driver to accidentally swerve or not slow down in time when cars ahead are breaking.

In fact, according to a recent study by the University of North Carolina Highway Research Center, you are six times more likely to get into a car wreck while pressing buttons in search of a radio station or handling a CD than if you were checking the speedometer or fuel gauge while driving. Safety experts recommend pulling your car over if you want to call someone, eat a meal, or change the music — or better still, leave those responsibilities to the passenger, so the driver can concentrate on the road.

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