VALDOSTA -- With many folks out and about preparing for the Thanksgiving holiday season next week, Georgia's law enforcement personnel are working to ensure the safety of the state's motorists.

Monday, they kicked off the state's Click It or Ticket/Zero Tolerance for Unbuckled Drivers and Kids program. Tuesday, representatives from the Valdosta Police Department and Governor's Office of Highway Safety rallied students in Valdosta High School's Driver's Education program. The purpose of the rally, held in the school's gymnasium, was to establish safe driving habits early on, thus saving lives and reducing injuries on Georgia roadways.

Thomas Craft, Ph.D., principal of Valdosta High School, told students that the law states they must wear their safety belts while driving.

Specifically, everyone in the front seat of an automobile and everyone under the age of 18 must be properly restrained at all times. Those in trucks don't have to follow the same set of rules. However, Commander Johnnie Faison with the Valdosta Police Department said the state legislature is working to change that.

"Seatbelts do save lives," Faison said. "I encourage you to wear your seatbelts. I want all of you to be back here after the holidays."

Branching off from the traditional spin of the Click It or Ticket program agenda, Dr. Ronnie Mathis, regional coordinator for the Greater Lowndes Coalition, a division of the Governor's Office of Highway Safety, discussed the dangers of impaired performance on a driver. He cited cell phone usage, eating, and using alcohol and drugs as problem areas.

Sgt. Earl Durrance with the Valdosta Police Department's Traffic Unit demonstrated how an impairment affects a persons ability to operate a motor vehicle safely. Using several student volunteers and a pair of special goggles, he showed everyone in attendance what three or four beers can do to a person's balance, coordination and response time.

One by one, the student volunteers stumbled down the infamous "line."

"That was really hard," said Anthony Drawyer, a 16-year-old sophomore. "I got all dizzy and for some reason my feet felt really heavy. Another problem was the line appeared to be moving."

Before closing out his portion of the program, Durrance offered advice. "Wear your seatbelt," he said. "Don't drink and drive, and don't ride with anyone who has been drinking. It's a sad thing to have to tell a family a loved one has been killed in a car crash."

Governor's Office of Highway Safety Division Director Francine R. Scott shared statistics from last year's Thanksgiving holiday. She said an average of 4.5 people died each day during the season, except Thanksgiving Day, in which 15 deaths were reported.

"What's bad is 66 percent of these people were not wearing seat belts," she said. "Females accounted for 33 percent of all the traffic fatalities every day except Thanksgiving Day, where they climbed to 50 percent."

The goal of Georgia's Click It or Ticket is to urge all Georgians to buckle up and properly restrain children. According to the Centers for Disease Control, motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for Georgians ages 1 to 35 and are mostly caused by failure to wear seatbelts or place children in child safety seats, driving while intoxicated, and speeding.

Fatality rates for teens are twice that of older drivers, and their risk of crashes is four times that of older drivers.

Another high-risk group are U.S. Service personnel. Deaths among military personnel in private motor vehicle crashes are up 35 percent from last year. During the 2002 fiscal year, 321 military personnel across all services died in traffic crashes, and law enforcement officials say many of these deaths could be been prevented. Military personnel by virtue of age and gender typically epitomize the low belt user -- males ages 18-34.

With this in mind, teens, young adults, and military personnel in private vehicles will be key targets during the Thanksgiving season Click It or Ticket event, which runs th

rough Dec. 1.

To contact reporter Jessica Pope, please call 244-3400, ext. 255.

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