Police stepping up enforcement for Labor Day

Monday, August 28th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- The eight motorists who died on Oklahoma highways during the Labor Day weekend last year have been on the mind of Jim Burris ever since.

That's why Burris, an Oklahoma Highway Patrol lieutenant and the law enforcement liaison to the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office, will be on patrol this Labor Day along with almost 71,000 other law enforcement officers in five states in a stepped-up enforcement effort aimed at preventing holiday deaths.

"Labor Day weekend is one of the largest fatality weekends that we have," Burris said. "We want to reduce the fatality rate.

That's our ultimate goal."

"We have a lot more people on the road during the holiday period, a lot of partying going on, a lot of drinking and driving," said Bruce Shults, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is coordinating the five-state effort.

"Perhaps this will make people think twice and make other arrangements to get home," Shults said.

More than 1,400 law enforcement agencies in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico as well as Indian nations will participate in the Labor Day crash crackdown, code named Operation Blue Talon 2. The program kicks off Friday and will run through Sept. 5.

Troopers, police officers and sheriff's deputies will focus on enforcing traffic laws intended to protect motorists from injury and death, including driving while intoxicated, speeding and seat belt usage.

"They're tired of wiping up the bodies," said Cecilia M.

Alsobrook, program manager for the Oklahoma Highway Safety Office.

"Hopefully, we'll see some great results this year."

Last year, alcohol was involved in 15,794 highway deaths nationwide. There were 12,672 people were killed in speeding-related crashes, and 63 percent of the people killed were not buckled up, said Georgia S. Chakiris, regional administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Stepped-up enforcement efforts like Operation Blue Talon 2 can prevent fatal crashes and protect motorists during heavy traffic periods like Labor Day, she said.

"You can't beat the odds of getting caught," Chakiris said.

"It's going to be a big show of force," Burris said.

Operation Blue Talon 2 is the second traffic enforcement program conducted in the five-state region. The first was held during the Memorial Day and Labor Day weekends in 1998. Sixty-nine people died in collisions in the five states during the Labor Day weekend.

Shults said the enforcement program has demonstrated tangible results.

In Amarillo, Texas, authorities conducted a seat belt usage survey prior to the start of the program and found that 71 percent of motorists were buckled up. After Operation Blue Talon, usage rose to nearly 80 percent, Shults said.

In Texas, 19 people were killed during the Memorial Day holiday weekend in 1998 when Operation Blue Talon was in effect. The previous Memorial Day, 34 people lost their lives in highway collisions.

In Oklahoma, law enforcement agencies investigated 1,087 highway mishaps during Labor Day 1999. But Alsobrook said statewide enforcement of laws requiring seat belt usage and banning aggressive driving have helped cut the state's overall death toll.

"We see fatalities going down," she said. There were 745 people killed on Oklahoma highways last year, down from 769 in 1998.

"They have consistently gone down since passage of the primary seat belt enforcement law in 1997," Alsobrook said. Oklahoma's seat belt usage rate is 60.7 percent, but authorities hope to increase it to 75 percent by the end of 2001.

Most major highways in the five states will have a greater law enforcement presence during Operation Blue Talon 2, but patrols will be heaviest along four roadways: Interstates 10, 30, 35 and 40.

Shults said continuous enforcement along the highways will permit state troopers to spot violators from border to border and beyond.

"State police in the five states are working on major stretches of highway," Shults said. "They're all going to be out in force and they're all going to be looking for traffic violations that cause traffic deaths and cause traffic injuries."

In Oklahoma, Operation Blue Talon 2 will focus on Interstates 35 and 40, roadways that criss-cross the state and are among its heaviest traveled.

In Oklahoma City, where the highways intersect, state troopers will work closely with city and county law enforcement agencies during the Labor Day weekend, Burris said. Some local agencies may use unmarked cars.

About 104,000 cars and trucks pass over I-40 at the I-35 interchange every day, said Terri Angier, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Transportation.

The daily traffic count rises to 120,000 a few miles west where I-40 intersects with I-44, she said.

A portion of I-44 in Oklahoma City has the distinction of being Oklahoma's heaviest traveled roadway, Angier said. About 170,000 cars and trucks a day use the segment of I-44 that passes through the northwest side of the city, she said.

Nearly 100,000 cars and trucks travel along I-35 south of I-40 on a daily basis, she said. That figure drops to about 70,000 north of I-40.