POPLAR BLUFF - Holiday travelers can expect to have lots of company on the road and Missouri State Highway Patrol officials are again urging motorists to drive safely.
"Obey the speed limits and pay attention, don't drink and drive, and be patient," advised Sgt. Larry Plunkett, spokesman for the Missouri State Highway Patrol. "Leave early and have a safe trip."
The number of travelers dipped some last year, according to Plunkett, following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
This year, however, MSHP officials are expecting numbers "probably closer to years past," Plunkett said. "We expect for people to be getting out again."
For their part, the Missouri State Highway Patrol will participate in Operation C.A.R.E. (Combined Accident Reduction Effort).
As part of this operation, all officers not on extended vacation are required to work as additional officers are assigned to Missouri's roadways to enforce traffic laws, especially those related to drunk driving, speeding, and seat belt use.
"We've been participating in the program for about 10 years now," said Plunkett. "We'll be on all the primary roadways." Operation C.A.R.E. for the Thanksgiving holiday will be in effect from 6 p.m. Wednesday until 11:59 p.m. Sunday.
"We count all of the fatalities that occur during that period," said Plunkett. "Our ultimate goal is to get that number to zero."
During the 2001 Thanksgiving holiday weekend 16 people were killed and another 798 injured in 1,872 traffic crashes, according to the patrol's data - one person killed or injured every 7.5 minutes, statistically.
The patrol also reported a total of 78 killed and 4,150 injured in Thanksgiving holiday weekend traffic accidents over the past five years.
Operation C.A.R.E. involves a network of state agencies and county law enforcement agencies from Texas up to the Ohio Valley, according to Plunkett. "We primarily do it on the primary peak travel holidays," he said. Of those, Thanksgiving is number one on the list.
Many motorists will have full cars with small children among the passengers, which can cause additional stress and distractions for the driver. "We ask that they pull over and take a break instead of trying to deal with it going down the roadway," Plunkett said.
Cell phones can also be a distraction, and Plunkett advised only to use them while driving if you have a hands-free device.
As 70 percent of accidents are attributed to inattention or excessive speed, according to Plunkett, having law enforcement achieve "maximum visibility" is just as important as them monitoring the roads.
"Our goal is to prevent people from driving too fast or losing their concentration," Plunkett said. "Being seen seems to have a greater deterrence than any other single item."
Troopers will assist motorists as needed, but motorists can do their part to prevent breakdowns from occurring.
"Make sure your car is ready to make a long trip before you load up your family and go, especially since it's looking like we're going to have some cold weather," Plunkett advised. "We encourage everyone to check their tires -
we have a lot of blowouts during peak travel periods."
He recommended having your vehicle serviced for antifreeze and other fluids. "Make sure you have plenty of gas in the tank before you go," he added.
Drivers can prepare themselves by resting up for the trip and calling Missouri's Road Condition Report at 1-800-222-6400.
The Highway Patrol's Emergency Assistance number, 1-800-525-5555 or *55 on a cellular phone, rings directly into the closest Patrol headquarters.
"We receive several *55 calls," said Plunkett. "The only thing we ask is please make it an emergency."
The emergency assistance number should be used to report traffic crashes, crimes being committed, or other emergencies on Missouri's highways.
For non-emergencies, you can call the Troop E headquarters at 840-9500 or a local law enforcement agency.
"If you see drunks or someone else driving in a threatening manner, give us a call," said Plunkett. "We appreciate the phone calls."