PEORIA — With the rise in popularity of the Wednesday before Thanksgiving as one of the biggest party nights of the year, authorities are urging motorists to be particularly cautious heading into the long holiday weekend.
Police and Illinois Department of Transportation officials stressed the importance of designated drivers and seat belts during a news conference Tuesday announcing heightened holiday patrols.
Citing the steady uptick in traffic fatalities around the state in 2012 - up to 853 deaths so far, 41 more than the same time period last year - grant-funded patrols throughout the area will focus on late-night drunken driving, seat belt use, speeding and distracted driving.
“Too many people are not getting the message,” said Lt. Steve Roegge of the Peoria Police Department's Special Operations Division.
Since the beginning of the city's portion of the campaign Nov. 14, officers specifically on the grant-funded patrols have written 67 tickets - 41 for seat belt violations, two drunken driving arrests and others for speeding and other traffic issues.
Over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend last year, from Wednesday evening through the end of the day Sunday, eight people died on Illinois roads. John Gomoll, the IDOT law enforcement liaison, said the general uptick in traffic fatalities is due in part to the prevalence of smartphones.
“We think that distracted driving is the biggest increase we've seen,” Gomoll said, adding that tracking such statistics has proved difficult.
Gomoll also noted the correlation between late-night fatalities and seat belt use. From 2007 through 2011, the most fatalities have occurred between midnight and 3 a.m., which statistically has the least compliance with seat belt use. Only 26 percent of those who died were properly restrained during those hours, compared with 62 percent for daytime hours.
“A lot of unrestrained drivers at night are also using alcohol,” said Lt. Mike Welsh, operations officer for Illinois State Police District 8. “Unfortunately, it's those people who are dying.”