SIKESTON - No matter how many times you hear it, the message remains just as important: Buckle up, obey the speed limits, and don't drink and drive.
"We're hoping to prevent tragedies from happening on our roadways," said Lt. Jim McNiell of the Missouri State Highway Patrol's Troop E. "There's no greater tragedy than to lose a loved one during the holidays."
Geared mostly toward traffic issues, the Patrol is always focused on "promoting safety on our highways," according to McNiell, but there is concern among Patrol officials about the high number of fatalities seen in the 13 counties within Troop E's area this year.
"We're running way above what we've had in previous years," he said. "We've had a lot of multiple fatality accidents. We've had quite a few of them."
The increase in fatalities has occurred even though enforcement for speeding, seat belts and other moving violations is up.
"Sometimes it just runs in spurts," McNiell said. "We are out there trying to make a difference, but we're still having these accidents. And we still have people who are not wearing their seat belts."
McNiell said over the years as a trooper, he has personally seen many fatalities that could have been avoided. "If they'd been wearing a seat belt, their chance of survival would have been significantly improved," he said. It doesn't take much room inside a vehicle to survive - providing you don't have a high-speed impact into the dashboard, steering wheel or windshield.
If motorists would simply obey speed limits, wear seat belts, and not drive under the influence of alcohol, "We would see a significant decrease in the number of people being killed on our roadways," McNiell said. "Our main concern is the drinking and driving. We're constantly trying to put that message out: Don't drink and drive."
McNiell also advised those who plan to take to the highways to visit families and friends to "get plenty of rest, start early, take frequent breaks - and obey the laws," he said. "Don't speed; don't follow too closely."
With lower temperatures bringing ice and sleet, the patrol is also urging extra caution during inclement weather. "Adjust your speed accordingly," McNiell said. "We caution people to prepare for winter weather. Check tires, make sure they are properly inflated. Also make sure to always travel with plenty of gas. We always recommend a half tank or more."
An unfortunate reality is that it usually takes a few days of bad weather before people begin to take weather conditions seriously.
"People have not learned to make the adjustment," McNiell said. "Most of the accidents are just caused by people driving too fast for the conditions. Always leave yourself enough time for the distance you are traveling."
With a tight schedule, people begin to take unnecessary risks, he explained.
Other winter travel precautions include packing the trunk with such items as blankets, warm clothing, a flashlight, and materials for getting unstuck such as a small shovel, cinders and salt.
"Cellular phones are excellent tools for emergencies," he added. Those with a cell phone who need the Patrol can dial *55. "Those are priority calls for us - if you call that number you will get a trooper," McNiell said.
One positive trend troopers are seeing is more motorists are pulling off to the shoulder to use their cell phones, reducing the risk of "diverted attention" accidents.
"We want this holiday season to be as safe as it's ever been during the holidays," McNiell said. "We each have to do our part to make this holiday safer."