May 30, 2004: Attention Motorists: The Heat is On

You probably have already heard the news, but you need to hear it again: The HEAT is on. From now through September 12, more that 500 law enforcement agencies in the state are going to show zero — as in “none,” “nada,” ”zilch” — tolerance to the reckless drivers who have made Georgia’s highways so dangerous and deadly.

HEAT stands for “Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic” and is under the direction of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety. No one is immune, not even a sanctimonious columnist who thinks most of Georgia’s drivers are out-of-control, but has himself been known on occasion to get a little too impatient behind the wheel.

At a recent news conference to announce the crackdown, Bob Dallas, director of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, said that car crashes in Georgia outnumber the murder rate by three-to-one and that the “One Hundred Days of Summer HEAT” will be the longest, toughest, most ambitious highway safety initiative ever attempted in this state.

“On average every week, 29 people die in motor vehicle crashes in Georgia,” Dallas said. To make his point, the director stood before 1609 empty chairs. Each chair represented a life that had been lost in an automobile accident in Georgia in 2003 — a child, a parent, a friend. Of these, 62 percent were not wearing seat belts, and at least a third of the deaths involved alcohol. What an unnecessary tragedy.

Dallas says that the governor’s office has received so many complaints from motorists about the reckless drivers on Georgia roads that the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety called in a group of citizens to get their opinions. He said their message was clear — “Give us fair warning and then crack down.” From that has come the “100 Days of Summer HEAT.”

Attending with the director were a number of law enforcement personnel from around the state. One police officer from Union City, just south of Atlanta, told me of the traffic stops he makes in which the driver is not wearing a seatbelt as required by law, but even worse, the children are not strapped in nor are the infant seats. “If drivers want to risk their own lives,” he said, “that’s their decision, but why jeopardize the lives of children?” An excellent question.

One reason for my interest in the enforcement campaign is that I have three teenage grandsons who are now driving. The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety says that motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers in America. That worries the heck out of me. In talking to a Cobb County patrolman, he gave me a new worry. “Every teenager is going to try at least once to see how fast their car will go,” he said. “It is human nature. Tell your grandsons that if they do, the police will catch them.” Consider yourselves warned, guys.

Before you self-important lead-foots who speed, tailgate and change lanes without warning accuse the police of simply trying to find a way to write more tickets, please understand that the police are trying to keep us from killing and maiming each other in our automobiles. Ben Richardson, solicitor general of Muscogee County, told those attending the news conference that the purpose of the crackdown is not “How many tickets did you write, but how many lives did you save?”

To those of you who don’t drink and drive, who obey the speed limit and wear your seat belts, this is a non-story. My feeling from wandering out on our highways is that you are in a small minority. The rest of us have lost our self-control, and this crackdown is long overdue. My regret is that the campaign is only 100 days in duration.

I applaud the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety and the men and women in law enforcement for their efforts during the “One Hundred Days of Summer HEAT.” I don’t envy them the job of trying to save an ungrateful motoring public from its own excesses. Just remember that if you get stopped this summer by the police, don’t blame me. I told you the HEAT was on.