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Turning on the Summer HEAT

By Ed Brock

Sheryl Lewis admits she doesn't like to wear a seat belt.

"I don't like to be tied down while I'm driving," said 42-year-old Lewis of Hampton.

Lewis has been ticketed before, and as the state's "Click It or Ticket" and "100 Days of Summer HEAT" traffic enforcement campaigns begin today she may want to change her ways.

"I'm starting to use one," Lewis said. "When I drive with my kids, they bug me about it all the time."

That's the kind of sea change law enforcement officials have sought to impose on drivers' attitudes with the inception of these programs, Clayton County Police Capt. Tom Israel said.

"We want this to be the safest motoring summer yet," Israel said.

The "HEAT" stands for "Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic," a special multicounty traffic enforcement unit that Israel is the coordinator of for the Atlanta area.

Since "Click It or Ticket" began, seat belt usage in the entire state has risen by 86 percent, Israel said, and it has even gone up more than 70 percent among pickup truck drivers who are not required by law to wear seat belts.

A press conference will be held at Centennial Park in Atlanta to signal the beginning of the programs that are sponsored by the Governor's Office of Highway Safety. Israel said after that Clayton County police and other law enforcement agencies will begin saturated patrols and roadside checkpoints on the county's roads.

"We're going to have a road block every day for a hundred days," Israel said.

Israel said saturated patrols, because they cover a wider area, have become more successful than road checks in catching offenders.

"When we first started doing (road blocks), we were getting 15 arrests a night for driving under the influence," Israel said. "Over the next couple of years, it dropped down to six a night."

There will also be multistate operations at one point during the summer.

"For example, I-75 will be saturated with law enforcement from Kentucky all the way to Florida," Israel said, adding that a date has not been set for that operation.

Israel has some numbers to show the effectiveness of last year's operation. During that time, officers state wide issued 61,165 seat belt citations, 8,785 child restraint citations, 223,470 speeding citations (4,164 of which were for commercial vehicles), 2,737 reckless driving charges, stopped 18,038 uninsured motorists and 17,152 drivers with suspended or revoked licenses.

They also made arrests for 272,497 non-traffic related offenses, including 7,409 for drug-related offenses, 5,850 felony arrests, found 6,156 wanted persons and stopped 1,986 stolen cars.

And the numbers may be just as high this year, Israel said, because he expects just as many travelers to be on the highways despite higher gas prices.

"I think people have adjusted to the gas prices," Israel said.

James Hickman of Jonesboro said he believes in wearing a seat belt, but he thinks the police and state troopers are "looking for other things" during these operations, such as uninsured motorists and drug offenders.

"They do that to make money," Hickman said.

Israel denied that.

"We're not in this for the money," Israel said. "We're in this to save lives."