May 29, 2006: Warning To Georgia Motorists: Click It Or Ticket

It was like a scene out of the TV show “COPS,” only it was real. At the invitation of the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, I witnessed the kickoff of the state’s “Click It or Ticket” campaign on the Friday preceding the Memorial Day weekend in the North Georgia mountains.

Lest you be reading this in Middle or South Georgia and think the “Click It or Ticket” campaign doesn’t concern you, be assured there is a roadblock headed your way as we speak. If you don’t have a valid driver’s license, proof of insurance and a seat belt wrapped around you, you could be in for a bad day wherever you live in the state. Add some booze or drugs, and it could be a very long as well as a bad day. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Here is how it works. The state is divided into sixteen “traffic enforcement networks” that cover every foot of soil in the state. Each network includes the law enforcement agencies in that area — city, county and state. Each network has a volunteer coordinator who gets the law enforcement officials together monthly to be briefed on new laws and regulations, to share experiences and to get to know and trust each other better. (Police are notoriously territorial.)

I happened to be in the Appalachian Trail area, which encompasses an area from Rabun County to Hall County, including the hilly and dangerous mountain roads of North Georgia. The coordinator for that particular network is Eddie Gilmore, a bear of a man who is a sergeant in the Ellijay police department and a Great American. Sgt. Gilmore and I went from checkpoint to checkpoint so that I could see for myself how the checkpoints work.

Before the effort began, close to a hundred police officers from around the area gathered for dinner at the Pickens County Sheriff’s Office. There was a lot of good-natured ribbing and inside jokes and a strong camaraderie among the men and women. Most of the officers I spoke to were married. It reminded me that these are ordinary folks with families like the rest of us, doing dangerous and unappreciated work that most of us couldn’t or wouldn’t do — certainly not for the wages we pay them. When the dinner was over, the fun and joshing were too. The officers put on their game faces and went to work.

Despite an extensive public relations effort by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety to educate Georgia drivers to the upcoming “Click It or Ticket” campaign, law enforcement officers had no problem that night writing citations and making arrests for drunk driving, drugs, expired licenses, phony license plates, lack of insurance and, incredibly, not wearing seat belts. Any one of these idiots could have killed your family or mine. One giggly teenager couldn’t find her seat belt at a checkpoint near Ellijay. An accommodating state patrolman helped her locate it as well as the marijuana stashed away in the car. Last I saw her, she was headed for the pokey along with her boyfriend. She wasn’t laughing.

I had drop-jaw at some of the stuff I saw. Police officers see it every day. Sgt. Gilmore says police deal with two kinds of traffic stops: The bad guys who lie like a dog when stopped and the “upstanding citizens” who get their drawers in a wad and question why the police aren’t out catching murderers instead of bothering them. One answer: Automobile fatalities in Georgia are triple the murder rate. The police are trying to save us from ourselves.

A postscript. On the Memorial Day weekend when the “Click It or Ticket” campaign kicked off, the Georgia State Patrol had predicted 18 automobile deaths over the three-day holiday period. In fact, 17 died. Maybe we saved a few lives that night. Maybe the road checks will save a few more in the weeks to come. Perhaps one day, we might even learn to drive with the brains God gave us, and none of this time and effort would be necessary. After what I saw that weekend, I’m not hopeful.