Holiday traffic puts patrol officers on alert as motorists crowd roads

By Megan R. Harrell
Star Staff
mharrell@starhq.com

   Local law enforcement officials have joined the throngs of holiday motorists this weekend on one of the busiest travel periods of the year. With an influx of bargain shoppers and homeward bound travelers on the roads, extra precautions are needed to ensure safety.
   According to the Tennessee Highway Patrol, the 102-hour Thanksgiving holiday period began at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 27, and continues until midnight tonight. Local patrol officers are working to make sure a steady decrease in the amount of fatalities during the Thanksgiving period continues its downward trend.
   Patrolman Mike Merritt works with the Elizabethton Police Department's traffic unit that is set aside to deal solely with vehicular safety. Every weekend following Thanksgiving the entire traffic unit braces for a substantial increase in local traffic.
   "We have a traffic division specially designed for traffic safety and the entire shift was working yesterday and today because of the traffic problems," Merritt said. "We have an increased awareness with DUI violators, and this year we are in our third phase of the 'Click It or Ticket It' program."
   Merritt said this year's traffic is comparable to years past, and that the large amount of shoppers on the road pose the biggest threat in Elizabethton. "The traffic this year seems to be equal to what it has been in the past," Merritt said. "It was extremely heavy on Wednesday, but it was not that bad yesterday because everybody had reached their destination. Today will be the heaviest because of people traveling home, and all of the shoppers."
   A steady flow of shoppers made their way to and from Wal-Mart in the Bemberg Shopping Center Saturday to take advantage of holiday sales. The Bemberg intersection is one of the areas in the city where patrol officers usually see traffic problems. "Saturday will be the day that we will have the most accidents with all of the shoppers that are out. Especially at the shopping centers, Wal-Mart and places like that," Merritt said.
   With this year's heightened holiday traffic there have not been any major automobile accidents locally. "We have had some incidences but they have all been of a moderate nature," Merritt said.
   Merritt offered advice to those who will be traveling throughout the holiday season. He encouraged motorists to abide by traffic laws which were designed for their safety. "They need to pay special attention to seat belts, and child restraint laws, and make sure they are abiding by them if they have a child in the vehicle that is within the age requirement," Merritt said.
   The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have issued a report that states safety-belt use is the single most effective means of reducing fatal and nonfatal injuries in vehicle accidents. According to the CDC, seat belts reduce the risk for death by about 50 percent, yet three out of 10 adults neglect to use them.
   Patrolman Merritt embraces the old adage "haste makes waste," and asks local motorists to simply slow down when operating a vehicle in heavy traffic. "They should drive with care and reduce speed. Speed does not have a great amount of impact in the amount of time it takes to get somewhere, but it does greatly increase the chances of being involved in an accident of some kind," Merritt said.
   Merritt also warned drivers to be sensitive to their bodies and recognize signs of fatigue. He said if drivers get tired they should exit their vehicles and walk around until they are refreshed. "Sometimes when drivers get tired they just zone in on one thing and they definitely are more likely to not be aware of things around them. Lots of times they do not pick up on dangers in the roadway," Merritt said.