Police gear up for holiday

BY ABE TEKIPPE | JUNE 30, 2009 7:21 AM

Iowa City police Sgt. Mike Lord considers the Fourth of July to be among the top five alcohol-related crime holidays. Stepping up patrols, his department will spend approximately $640 on overtime pay for officers this weekend.

The Iowa City police — along with nearly 250 law-enforcement agencies across the state — will use government funds as part of a special Traffic Enforcement Program, which focuses on seat-belt use and responsible drinking, said coordinator Randy Hunefeld.

National statistics from 2007 show nearly one-third of fatal motor-vehicle crashes involved at least one driver or motorcycle rider with a blood-alcohol concentration above the legal limit. Coupled with the high volume of traffic during holidays, authorities are facing an arguably volatile mix.

The traffic-enforcement initiative identifies five annual waves of heavy travel that warrant heightened enforcement — usually around major holidays, including Independence Day.

Agencies that apply for and receive a $4,500 grant for traffic control are required to increase patrols during those periods.

Other agencies, such as the Iowa City police, are ineligible for this grant because they receive other government funding. They are not required to increase patrols according to program guidelines.

But many do anyway.

“While we’re not required to take part in those waves, it makes sense to, so we try to,” Lord said. “I would say anything that takes a drunk driver off the road … would be worth the effort.”

Similarly, the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office will use money from its budget to increase the minimum number of deputies on patrol this week. It will also use additional government funding to pay one overtime deputy.

Authorities said increased patrols allow better enforcement of alcohol and seat belt laws. So far, some of their efforts appear to have paid off.

The Iowa average for seat-belt use currently stands at 93 percent, placing the state among the top 10 nationally, according to the Governor’s Traffic Safety Bureau.

“[The average for seat-belt use] has increased every year since 1996, the onset of the special Traffic Enforcement Program,” Hunefeld said.

But there is still some work to be done.

Approximately 150,000 front-seat drivers and 50,000 front-seat passengers go unbuckled on Iowa roadways every day, Hunefeld said.

“Public safety is the bottom line,” Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said. “In the end, the goal of all of it is to save lives.”

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