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Southeast patrols working to stop Labor Day drunk driving

Highway patrol officers in the Southeast will beef up their presence and coordinate across state lines over Labor Day weekend in an effort to curb alcohol-related deaths and other traffic fatalities.

Law enforcement officials from across an eight-state region met in Kennesaw, Ga., on Wednesday to announce what they’re calling Zero For 24, a project with the goal of allowing no drunk-driving deaths on Labor Day.

Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee make up the southeastern region of Operation CARE, which stands for Combined Accident Reduction Effort.

Started in 1977, Operation CARE is a group of state law enforcement agencies that works together to reduce highway accidents, particularly on national holidays.

“Each of these states is committed to this,” said Lt. Jeff Babb, of the North Carolina State Highway Patrol, who chairs the group’s southeast region. “What we’re trying to do is not only increase public awareness, but the bottom line is we’re trying to save lives in the process.”

A total of 16,885 people died in alcohol-related crashes in the U.S. in 2005, according to the National Highway Safety Administration. The number of deaths increased in 25 states between 2004 and 2005.

Despite law-enforcement efforts, those figures have remained relatively constant in recent years. In 1997, for example, 16,711 people were killed in alcohol-related crashes.

Traditionally, traffic fatalities spike during holiday weekends, when more motorists are traveling and attending parties and other events where alcohol is served.

Maj. Charles Andrews of the Alabama State Patrol said the three-day Labor Day weekend presents some special challenges.

“It’s the last major holiday for the summer,” he said. “You’re going to have all kinds of activities going on — college football games and things of that nature.”

Andrews said Alabama will put more troopers on the highways over the long weekend. About 500 troopers, or roughly 80 percent of the patrol’s entire force, will be on the state’s roads at any given time, an increase from the usual 350.

Highway patrols throughout the region will receive extra state and federal funding to pay for overtime during the holiday. Andrews said every state in the region will have an increased presence.

“No matter what state you go to, you’re going to see us out participating in this campaign,” he said.

In addition to public awareness, Babb said Operation CARE allows highway patrols in the member states to share information, statistics and techniques for better policing the highways.

Representatives from six states were present Wednesday for the CARE campaign’s kickoff.

Babb said Florida troopers were too busy with preparations for Tropical Storm Ernesto and Mississippi troopers were needed for special events marking the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

On the Net:

Operation C.A.R.E., http://www.careofnorthamerica.org