Be aware, take care and drive safe

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As Vermonters prepare to celebrate the last hurrah of summer, it's important to remind everyone to stay safe on the roads this weekend.

With four months still remaining until the end of the calendar year, Vermont already has surpassed last year's traffic fatality total, and one of the most dangerous weekends of the year for driving is still ahead of us.

In fact, the National Safety Council predicts this coming Labor Day weekend will be one of the worst in nearly a decade in terms of roadway crashes and fatalities.

An estimated 421 people may be killed and another 48,400 may be seriously injured in nationwide car crashes during the upcoming weekend, the highest estimate by the NSC since 2008.

This weekend's fatality estimate also runs about 11 percent higher than the average of 378 calculated for Labor Day weekend over the past six years. The figures are in addition to the some 400 fatalities that the NSC estimated for the Memorial Day holiday weekend at summer's start.

The somber statistics bookend what NSC and travel lobby and service membership club AAA consider to be "the 100 deadliest days of driving." Vacations and favorable weather tend to increase the volume of autos on the roads, and Americans are in their cars for longer trips during this stretch.

What's more, the relative strength of the economy in 2017 and looser auto-loan borrowing terms are putting more Americans behind the wheel.

These dire accident predictions should be particularly worrisome in Vermont, which has seen a noticeable uptick in traffic accidents and fatalities in recent years. From 2012 through 2014, Vermont experienced a steady decline in roadway crashes and deaths, but then the trend reversed itself and the numbers have gone up each of the last three years.

The state has already surpassed last year's traffic-related fatality total of 40 (as of Aug. 28, there have been 41 fatalities on Vermont roads), and there are still four months left in the year.

Fortunately, state and local police are stepping up enforcement to help reverse the trend. In the aftermath of last month's series of crashes that killed eight people in four days, including seven in less than 24 hours, state troopers across Vermont began conducting "saturation patrols." The mission is to focus on drivers who are speeding, distracted behind the wheel, not using seat belts, or driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

"The scheduled enforcement is an opportunity to use high visibility enforcement to turn the tide, across the state, in the number of traffic fatalities/crashes," Vermont State Police said in a statement. "Using state and local data, engaging task forces and working with other agencies, we can have an impact in Vermont."

Those efforts will be expanded even more this weekend.

Police will be on the roads, statewide, for Operation Combined Accident Reduction Effort (Operation CARE) to provide additional traffic enforcement over the final weeks of summer and the Labor Day weekend. Launched in 1977 by Sgt. Gary Ernst of the Michigan State Police and First Sergeant Gene Neff of the Indiana State Police, Operation CARE evolved into a multi-jurisdictional program of patrol, enforcement and planning activities committed to the goal of accident reduction. Efforts are focused on the three key causes of highway fatalities: speeding, impaired driving and failure to use seat belts.

Of the approximately 40,000 people who died in motor vehicle crashes in the United States in 2016, the three biggest causes of fatalities on the road are alcohol, speeding and distracted driving, according to the NSC.

Vermont State Police, Westminster Barracks in conjunction with local and county law enforcement will be conducting Sobriety & Safety Enforcement during the upcoming holiday weekend. Patrols and safety checkpoints will be based on a carefully focused analytical review of fatal crashes in Vermont, VSP explained.

They'll be getting some help in this effort from our neighbors to the east. New Hampshire State Police will be working with Vermont State Police in a joint traffic enforcement operation on Friday, focusing on Interstate 89 and Interstate 91 in both states. This includes direct traffic patrols in both states and traffic monitoring from above by New Hampshire State Police's Aviation Unit.

All of this stepped up enforcement is comforting, but the best way to improve safety on the roads is for individual drivers to be responsible and exercise more caution.

That means putting away the cell phone, buckling up the seat belt, and above all, don't drive impaired.

"We want to make [sure] the public knows that driving responsibly is important," state police Traffic Safety Commander Lt. John Flannigan told the Associated Press. "People need to make the effort every day to drive safely. It should be a fairly easy concept, to drive with respect to others, make sure you are wearing your seat belt and that your primary mission is getting to your destination safely."

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