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Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown held a news conference Tuesday to kick off a summer-long safety corridor project in Cherokee County. The program will incorporate no-tolerance driving zones on local highways that are historically known for their high number of crashes.

State and local police agencies hope you’ll consider the consequences of your actions when you get behind the wheel of a vehicle this summer.

If you get careless, officers are worried that you, a family member, or some innocent stranger could end up in the morgue.

Tuesday marked the official beginning of Cherokee County’s summer safety corridor project. Oklahoma Highway Patrol Lt. George Brown said the county’s highways have some of the highest numbers of crashes throughout the state, and officers want to halt that trend by introducing educational campaigns and no-tolerance enforcement of driving laws.

“The goal of the corridor project is to reduce the number of crashes, and therefore save lives, and not – we want to stress this – not simply to just write tickets,” said Brown. “What we do a lot of times is be reactive to crashes. We get the call, we answer the call and we go work the crash. At that point, a lot of times, it’s too late. What can we do to save lives? Let’s take a proactive approach – that is, create these corridors, get the word out to the public that it’s going to happen, and then enforce traffic laws within those corridors. I think it’s going to save lives, and I’ll tell you that if it saves one life, it was well worth it.”

Tuesday’s kick-off marks about a month-long period of what Brown calls education and communication with drivers. The collaborating agencies in Cherokee County will be issuing verbal or written warnings and providing information to drivers about their violations. In June, agencies will kick the safety corridor into high gear, adopting zero-tolerance policies for driving violations.

“I think the unique characteristic of traffic enforcement, at least when I started, was that when people saw a black-and-white cruiser or a local police car, they hit the brakes,” said Brown. “Then they kind of transformed and started reaching for their seat belt. Those are all good things. I think you can expect some of the same [with the safety corridor]. We want to get in the hearts and minds of the public. ...”

Highways within the county corridor include sections of State Highway 10, 51 and 82, and U.S. Highway 62. All are marked with reflective signs indicating where the corridor begins and where it ends.

Cherokee County Undersheriff Jason Chennault said the department’s deputies will specifically focus on S.H. 10 and areas of Lake Tenkiller.

“Our goal is not to write more tickets; our goal is to reduce crashes and save lives,” said Chennault. “One of the most difficult parts of our job, as law enforcement officers, is going to someone’s home and notifying them one of their loved ones has died. We want to prevent this from happening as much as possible, so projects like this are important. There are many people in this area who have lost loved ones on local highways, and I’m sure they would join us in saying we want to make our roads safer and prevent these kind of tragedies.”

Police will target impaired driving, speed, seat-belt usage, work-zone awareness, motorcycle safety, and inattentive driving. Tahlequah Police Chief Clay Mahaney said drivers should share the road in a safe manner.

“With warmer weather, we will see a big increase in the number of motorcyclists on the road, so it’s important for everyone to drive with that in mind,” said Mahaney. “We hope this corridor project will have an immediate impact on the number of crashes in our county. Yes, we can get out there and enforce the laws, but it’s also up to you, the drivers, to help us reduce the crashes out here. As we work together to save lives, you, too, have a role.”

Mahaney said city police officers will continue to offer inebriated folks a ride home, as long as they call dispatchers and are at an establishment inside the city limits, and are going to their home within the city limits. The deal is off if police catch that person behind the wheel of a vehicle; under those circumstances, the driver could earn a trip to jail.

Meanwhile, Oklahoma Scenic Rivers Commission rangers are gearing up for a new approach to their enforcement under the leadership of retired OHP Trooper Bill James.

“We’re going to double our manpower out here. In fact, I’ve already talked to [the state] highway safety office, and they’re going to provide funding for me to hire an extra ranger, through them, which will be dedicated to drunk driving enforcement on State Highway 10 and the roads around the river,” said James.

He knows all too well the problems facing Cherokee County – especially the number of people who choose to drink alcohol and drive.

“I just retired from the Highway Patrol, and I was the impaired-driving coordinator,” said James. “Three years ago, they asked me to go in and pull up which counties had the highest crash volume for impaired drivers. Well, Cherokee County is in the top three for the whole state. So last July, I brought seven troopers in to Cherokee County, and in one 10-hour shift on a Saturday night, we jailed 25 drunk drivers. ”

James said OSRC officials want the river to be a tourist attraction not only for out-of-town visitors, but for local families who also want to enjoy the areas along S.H. 10. Local residents’ long-standing fear of crossing paths with an impaired driver hinders those efforts, he said.

“So not only are people going to be seeing a lot more of us on the river, but they’re going to be seeing us on the roads. We want everybody to come in here and have a good time. We want families and church groups to be able to come in and not have to worry about being run over by drunk drivers,” said James. “We’re going to do that - start out with a strong education program, and then one ranger, his whole job will be looking for those drunk drivers. He’ll be writing a lot of warnings, but on every contact, he’ll be looking to see if that person is intoxicated, and if they are, we’re going to take them off the road.”

Brown particularly wants to send a message to Northeastern State University students, who can be easily caught up in local activities and attractions.

“Young drivers are some of the most at-risk drivers,” said Brown.

“It’s especially important to me because I have a son [at NSU]. I think college kids are especially at-risk for several reasons. They don’t particularly have a lot of driving experience. There are so many activities, and some of those activities are alcohol-related.”

Cell phones and other technology also distract many drivers.

“I’m not picking on college kids, I’m just saying they are especially at-risk for traffic fatalities,” said Brown. “And we have a new plague, if you will, of inattentive drivers, and that’s texting while driving. That’s just as dangerous an impaired driver.”

Though driving and using a cell phone isn’t illegal in Oklahoma, the impact of doing so could lead to other charges, such as reckless driving, inattentive driving, or operating a vehicle in a manner not reasonable and proper.

And police officers say they won’t hold back on enforcing laws within the corridor this summer.

“Next month we’ll start heavy enforcement, no tolerance,” said Brown. “And people can expect just that – no tolerance in those safety corridors. If the speed limit is 45, we expect people to do 45, not 46 or 47. Two miles an hour over would be in violation of the no-tolerance law, and you can expect to see a citation.”

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