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Our Views: Steer toward a safe summer on roads
Drop in traffic fatalities, rise in seat belt use are good signs, but we can do better
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

With high school and college students out for the summer and vacation season upon us, our already-crowded highways will be clogged with even more travelers in the weeks to come.

More drivers than ever fill our highways daily, and not just at rush hour. As our communities continue to grow and more people move here for jobs and other opportunities, it’s harder than ever to get around. With the roads more crowded, it’s more important than ever to slow down, be courteous and practice smart, safe driving habits.

So this is a good time to offer a reminder about how safe driving habits should be packed for the ride along with the beach umbrellas, grills and canoes, for our sake and others on the road.

With the Memorial Day holiday kicking off the season, law enforcement efforts to keep highways safe are under way. The state’s Click It Or Ticket campaign is being launched to remind folks to buckle up. Anyone who doesn’t yet realize the difference seat belts make in avoiding serious injury or death in an accident is ignoring clear facts.

And don’t even think about drinking before you get on the road. Law officers will be swarming the highways looking for drunken drivers who endanger themselves and others.

The same goes with distracted driving. Texting behind the wheel is against the law, and gabbing at length on your cellphone in heavy traffic is just as risky. Whether you’re eating, drinking, putting on makeup or fiddling with the CD player, make sure it doesn’t keep you from focusing on your primary task — keeping thousands of pounds of flying steel pointed in the right direction.

The good news is that more people seem to be heeding this message and making the extra effort to stay safe. A recent survey shows that 96 percent of adult drivers in Gainesville are wearing seat belts. Now local police have joined with the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety, Center Point, Gainesville traffic engineers and the city’s school system to get more high school students to buckle up beyond the current 83 percent, which is too low.

These young people need to remember the horrible accidents in recent years that led to deaths, many the result of vehicles leaving the roadway with riders not strapped in properly. Better to live to a ripe old age than have a life of potential cut short because you want to look tough and cool.

And if your own well-being isn’t incentive enough, remember that bad driving habits also can hit hard in the wallet, either from a dinged-up fender or a pricey traffic citation. That’s money you’d much rather have in your pocket for summertime fun.

The other good news is that traffic fatalities in Hall County have been trending downward in recent years. Last year, 26 people died on the county’s roadways, still too many but fewer than in 2005, with the numbers going in the right direction. There have been nine this year with the busy summer season still ahead.

Across the state, traffic deaths reached the lowest total in 60 years in 2011, a good sign that more drivers are heeding the advice to drive sober, buckle up and observe safer habits.

There are other factors, of course. Sometimes crowded roadways lead to lower speeds, if not for the reason we’d prefer. Higher gas prices also may be helping keep some cars off the road, as many are driving only when they have to.

Newer vehicles are safer than ever, with more air bags and car bodies better designed to withstand high-speed impact while protecting passengers. Highways are safer, too, as traffic engineers have devised ways to slow down speeders and create better ways for vehicles to merge, turn and negotiate roadways dense with travelers.

Stronger law enforcement is another factor. Whenever we see a state trooper or local officer pointing a radar gun at oncoming traffic, we instinctively slow down. Yet law agencies are struggling to keep that higher profile during lean budget periods, so it’s important to enforce tough penalties for those who are caught violating traffic laws.

We often hear complaints from residents who feel they were pulled over unjustly, and from some who believe law agencies are trying to pad revenue by writing tickets. But if the sum total of these efforts are safer roads, we can live with the inconvenience. You don’t want to get a ticket? Then don’t break the law. Simple as that.

Let’s all make every effort to keep this holiday and summer season safe for all who travel. Put down the smartphone and watch the road. Be patient with other drivers and take your time; better to get to the lake or park in one piece than spend time dealing with an accident. Making the right decisions behind the wheel will ensure that we all have a safe summer and make it to the fall.