BY KEN LITTLE
St. Patrick's Day falls on a Sunday this year, so it's a safe bet that quite a few people will celebrate the holiday on Saturday night.
It's no coincidence that the Greeneville Police Department plans a sobriety checkpoint from 11 p.m. Saturday, March 16, to 1 a.m. Sunday, March 17, at the intersection of Snapps Ferry Road and Old Stage Road.
The sobriety checkpoint is just one component of a stepped-up driver safety initiative by police to enforce other laws on the books, including those addressing speeding, texting while driving, and seat belt requirements.
A review of crash statistics in Tennessee in recent years shows the need for continued enforcement of the law, Assistant Chief Craig Fillers said.
Between 2008 and 2012, there were 413 crashes involving alcohol in Greene County that resulted in 20 fatalities, according to the Tennessee Department of Safety and Homeland Security's Research Planning and Development Division.
Fatality crashes from all causes in Greene County over the five-year period total 82, including 16 in 2012.
OTHER LAWS ENFORCED
"That's another reason we're doing this," Fillers said. "For the foreseeable future, we're also going to be enforcing speeding, seat belt usage, and texting [laws]."
The fact that this Saturday falls before a holiday such as St. Patrick's Day may mean more arrests at the sobriety checkpoint than there would be on a typical Saturday night, Fillers said.
"It has the potential to be [more], because St. Patrick's Day is a day when people tend to celebrate, and it's also a Saturday night, and people don't have to get up [to go to work], and that's a factor," Fillers said.
But mixing alcohol with driving is not the only problem.
The number of cell phone-related crashes in Tennessee topped 1,000 in 2011, figures show. That's up from about 650 in 2008.
The fine for texting while driving is $50, according to state law.
"Texting is the big problem because it takes your eyes off the road. A lot of people send a complete paragraph, and it only takes a split-second for a crash to occur," Fillers pointed out.
Most local drivers are aware of the regular speed limit enforcement conducted by Greeneville police on U.S. 11E and other heavily-traveled streets and roads in town.
There were 527 speeding-related traffic crashes in Greene County between 2008 and 2012, according to state traffic crash data.
"That's another reason to show extreme emphasis on making sure people are wearing their seat belt and slowing down," Fillers said.
The epidemic of prescription drug abuse also presents major challenges to law enforcement.
"It's not just alcohol any more. It's the prescription drug issue," Fillers said. "You can probably find people driving [drug]-impaired any time of day."
Those charged with drug-impaired driving under the influence may exceed 50 percent of total DUI arrests in Greene County, he said.
"We're finding more people under the influence of prescription drugs than on alcohol," Fillers said. "Officers are trained to detect people who are under the influence of drugs as well as alcohol."
'EVERYTHING WE CAN'
Police will also be on the lookout for other violations at the weekend sobriety checkpoint, Filler said.
The checkpoint is just "one of the many tools besides radar and patrol we're using to slow down the many fatalities and accidents involving alcohol and drugs," Fillers said.
"We're trying everything we can come up with to decrease the accidents with injuries, [from charges of] driving under the influence, to [not] wearing their seat belts, and ... texting while driving."