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News Year's Eve patrols, free rides aim to curtail alcohol deaths on Tampa Bay roads

As people celebrate New Year's tonight, extra police will patrol busy roads. Tow trucks will offer rides home to those too drunk to drive. Sober friends will take the wheel.

And if tonight proves to be like New Year's Eve of last year throughout the Tampa Bay area, our roads may be less deadly.

Because of all the extra enforcement, the free ride offers and awareness programs, several bay area cities said they haven't had fatal crashes on News Year's Eve in at least two years.

Tampa hasn't seen one in five years. St. Petersburg saw two alcohol-related crashes but no fatalities last New Year's Eve.

After a five-year rise, alcohol-related traffic deaths around New Year's dropped statewide last year, the Florida Highway Patrol reports — 19 people died in a 96-hour period in 2009, down from 26 in 2008.

Still, there are more cars on the road at holiday time. And abuse of prescription pills has become a much bigger problem. The recent decline in fatalities may be only fleeting.

"If people want to party and drink and drive," said Sgt. Art Rowand, a 26-year veteran of the Pasco County Sheriff's Office, "they are going to do it."

Authorities are adjusting schedules, paying overtime and saturating the most dangerous roadways to prepare.

Hillsborough County kicked off the holiday weekend with a checkpoint on State Road 60 in Brandon on Thursday and will continue throughout the weekend with increased patrols tonight and Saturday night, said sheriff's Sgt. William Porter.

"New Year's Eve is a night where a lot of people will be celebrating," Porter said. "Any time a person makes a plan ahead of time and has a designated driver or taxi helps."

Half of Tampa's 13-member DUI squad will be working tonight, said police spokeswoman Andrea Davis.

"We are aggressive on DUI patrols 365 days a year," Davis said. "This is the same for us as any day in the year."

In Pasco, nine sheriff's deputies will join Rowand in monitoring drunken driving.

The New Port Richey Police Department isn't staffing extra officers for the evening but will have a command center with the Pasco Sheriff's Office at Main Street and U.S. 19.

Police Lt. Steve Kostas said the U.S. 19 corridor is where authorities have seen the most crashes in past years.

In addition to the stepped-up enforcement, several cab companies offer free rides home and AAA South offers its "Tow to Go" program, which dispatches tow trucks to take impaired drivers and their cars home for free. (Call 1-800-AAA-HELP.)

Local agencies credit such programs, along with extra police enforcement and better driver awareness, with helping address a persistent problem.

"It appears the free cab ride programs have helped reduce DUIs, in addition to more people planning ahead and paying for limos and cab services," said Sgt. Richard Harris of the Clearwater Police Department's traffic enforcement team.

Harris said another factor is helping in Clearwater during the holiday.

"I don't believe it is as dangerous to drive on New Year's Eve as it was in years past because Clearwater does not have the type bars that draw large party crowds as it did years ago," he said. "Most of the bars in Clearwater are the smaller, neighborhood-type bars."

Several authorities said drivers seem to be more aware of the consequences.

"There is an increased awareness of the penalties that come with a DUI arrest, including a night in jail and thousands of dollars in financial penalties," Harris said.

Brooksville police Chief George Turner agreed. Nonetheless, his department will spend about 15 percent of its overtime budget for increased enforcement over the holidays.

"There's always going to be those few who think they can have a few drinks and drive," Turner said. "A few can be too many."

Times staff writers Brittany Alana Davis and Erin Sullivan contributed to this report.

>>Fast facts

Need a ride home?

To avoid driving drunk tonight, you can call AAA's free "Tow to Go'' program, which will tow you home even if you aren't a member. Call toll-free 1-800-AAA-HELP (222-4357).

News Year's Eve patrols, free rides aim to curtail alcohol deaths on Tampa Bay roads 12/30/10 [Last modified: Thursday, December 30, 2010 11:20pm]
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