SIKESTON - The next few weeks will be filled with holiday celebrations and that's fine, say law enforcement officials, just don't let the festive feeling provide a false sense of security when it comes to drinking and driving.
Last year during the holidays, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol, there were 75 fatalities and 6,076 people injured in accidents where the driver was operating the vehicle under the influence.
The largest group involved in alcohol-related accidents was made up of individuals between the ages of 15-24, accounting for 42 percent of all alcohol-related fatalities.
Progressive.com's countrywide survey found that 33 percent of people said they drive after having one or two drinks following a holiday celebration.
The survey also found that 44 percent of people said they know a friend who, despite being a designated driver, consumed alcohol and drove during the holidays.
"Part of the problem is acceptance by society and peer pressure," said Lt. Jim McNiell of the Missouri State Highway Patrol, Troop E headquarters.
Law enforcement officials are doing what they can to try to reduce the number of accidents this holiday season. McNiell pointed out extra troopers are being put on the road as part of a program called C.A.R.E., Continued Accident Reduction of Efforts, which is used during major holidays.
"People drink during the holidays due to being with friends and family and celebrating the holiday," said McNiell. "But what the Highway Patrol stresses is don't drink and drive. And leave enough time for your trip, don't speed. Swap drivers when you're fatigued, stretch your legs, get out of the vehicle."
Having a designated driver is important too, he said, possibly meaning the difference between life and death. The idea is for one person in the group not to drink and be responsible for getting everyone else who has been drinking safely home.
Some public and private establishments have designated drivers on staff to ensure their patrons arrive home safely. And there are hosts who serve alcohol and provide a designated driver to their guests.
"Designated drivers are a must and an effective action that party-goers can take," he said. "We have programs in some communities where taxi cabs give free service during Christmas and New Year's to intoxicated drivers and I've heard the stories of free rides, free sodas, etc. We need more such programs.
"Too many times friends let friends leave parties drunk, only to be attending their funeral several days later," cautioned McNiell. "As a 25-year veteran with the Highway Patrol, I have investigated this type of accident too many times. Working accidents involving drunk drivers is a law enforcement officer's job and it happens way too often. I have seen the senseless loss of life too many times."
McNiell said one thing that stands out at the scene of an accident involving alcohol is the presence of a strong odor of alcohol.
"And so many times the innocent are seriously hurt or killed and the impaired driver is not seriously hurt and doesn't realize the hurt and loss they have caused someone by their decision to drink and drive. So many times, the joyous times of the holiday season is ruined by the actions of a drunk driver."