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How Not to Be a Thanksgiving Statistic

Police to check on seat belts, aggressive and drunken drivers

WEDNESDAY, Nov. 21, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- The National Safety Council is predicting 532 driving deaths and more than 28,000 injuries this Thanksgiving holiday, and it would like to see that estimate proven wrong.

The group tabulates its holiday driving statistics from Wednesday evening though 11:59 p.m. Sunday, meaning about 125 deaths a day over the period. That's only slightly more than the 109 or so Americans who die each day on the nation's roads.

Still, police agencies across the country this year have declared stepped-up enforcement of seat belt rules and measures to reduce the risk of accidents on the highways. Much of the concern is due to the perception that lanes will be packed with people afraid to fly in the wake of the Sept. 11 terror attacks and the apparently accidental crash last week of a jetliner into a New York City neighborhood.

That perception is only partially true, according to the American Automobile Association (AAA). The group projects that 34.6 million Americans will travel at least 50 miles from home for this year's holiday, down 6 percent from last year's figure of 36.8 million. Of those, 30 million, or 87 percent, say they intend to drive, a decline of 500,000 from last year's figure. The rest will make the trip by plane, bus or train.

But since fewer Americans will be flying this holiday, the share of travelers going by car is headed for an all-time high, up from 83 percent in 2000, the auto group says.

The predictions were released Nov. 8, four days before the American Airlines crash in Queens that killed 265 people, which might have encouraged more people to drive to dinner this year.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a tip sheet last week about how motorists can protect themselves and their passengers. Topping the list was wearing a seat belt, which can cut the risk of dying in a crash by between 45 and 60 percent, the agency says. However, one in three drivers neglect to use the restraints.

The CDC also urges parents to keep infants and young children in car seats or booster seats, depending on their age and size, and to put all children under age 12 in the back seat.

Finally, officials say don't drink and drive. More than 16,000 of the 40,000 road deaths each year involve alcohol.

"Drunk drivers always have the right of way," says Joe Larkin, a spokesman for the National Safety Council, which each year sponsors its Operation ABC Mobilization to promote vigilant driving over the Thanksgiving week.

This year, the group's fundamental message incorporates the anxiety of the terrorist attacks. A statement by the group's chairman, Marion Blakey, says: "As Americans struggle to cope with events beyond each individual's control, we must remember that traffic fatalities are ongoing tragedies we can absolutely do something about if people buckle up themselves and their children, drive sober and obey the speed limits."

The group estimates that aggressive enforcement of seat belt laws nationally could save between 5,000 and 7,000 lives a year.

Trooper Roger Beaupre of the Connecticut State Police says his state is anticipating "extremely increased motor vehicle traffic due to the unfortunate incidents in regard to September 11."

Police in the Constitution State will be aggressively enforcing several measures to reduce accidents, including crackdowns on aggressive and reckless drivers and driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Another focus this Thanksgiving will be seat belts, and who's not wearing them, Beaupre says. The state has committed extra troopers to monitor belt use during peak driving hours, including Wednesday night and evening and all day Sunday, and has launched a campaign of print, radio and television reminders to motorists about the importance of wearing the restraints.

Connecticut currently boasts a 76 percent compliance rate with its seat belt law, which empowers police to pull drivers over for the infraction and carries a $37 fine, Beaupre says. This holiday, he says they're hoping for full compliance.

"The fine is one thing. When you get a taste of a steering wheel or a face full of glass, it's too late. We're trying to prevent the people from learning the hard way," Beaupre says.

What To Do: To learn more about how to minimize your risk of harm in an auto accident, try the CDC. To find out more about road safety, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the National Safety Council.

SOURCES: Interviews with Trooper First Class Roger Beaupre, Connecticut State Police, Middletown; Joe Larkin, spokesman, National Safety Council, Itasca, Ill.; AAA survey, Nov. 8, 2001; Nov. 16, 2001, CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report
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