Funded through a Governor’s Office of Highway Safety grant, three officers in blue, specially marked units target impaired drivers, speeding, child restraint and seat belt usage among other violations.
“When we began looking over a year and a half ago at numbers, we saw that there had been a spike in the number of fatalities in this county, and interestingly enough, not just interstate fatalities but fatalities all over Bartow County. When we did that, we thought this would be a great place for the next expansion of our H.E.A.T. program and we did that last year,” GOHS Director Harris Blackwood said Wednesday in an update at the BCSO. “I would like to say it’s been a great success. The good thing about this too is, not only has it succeeded in reducing the number of fatalities on the roads here, it’s gotten a lot of drunk drivers off the road.”
Statewide, GOHS officials said traffic enforcement efforts have cut fatalities noticeably — the state reported 84 fewer fatalities through Wednesday than for the same time last year. Blackwood said the number of fatalities dropped an average of almost 70 per year from 1,745 in 2005 to 1,186 last year.
The unit, comprised of Sgt. Michael Burlison and deputies Christopher O’Bryant and Nathan Gifford, from October to June issued: 178 citations and 237 warnings for no seat belts; 127 driving under the influence arrests; 27 drug arrests; eight for reckless driving; 783 citations and 415 warnings for speeding, including 270 citations for 16-20 mph over, 393 citations for 21-25 mph over, 90 citations for 26-29 over and 30 citations for more than 30 mph over the speed limit; and 10 for no insurance.
“What I want people to understand when we started this HEAT unit, it wasn’t about the citations. It wasn’t about arrests. It was about education, you know, seat belts, child restraints, DUIs, speeding, reckless driving, things like that. I’m proud to say a warning will go a lot farther sometimes than a citation will with someone,” Sheriff Clark Millsap said. “We’re not just out here trying to bring in revenue. We’re out here trying to make the streets of Bartow County safer.”
For the men on the streets, the busier thoroughfares rank high on the list of violators, but Burlison said motorists are barreling through construction zones — think Highway 113 or State Route 20 — at speeds reaching 75 mph.
“What you’re finding is ... the vast majority of the people that are getting stopped here for speeding don’t live here. They’re passing through,” Gifford said. “... The majority of the violators we find are not local residents. ... And the ones that do get caught that are local know they’re wrong. ... The majority of citations issued are 20-plus mph over, which, if you’re going 20 or more miles per hour over the speed limit, there’s no excuse and there’s no way you don’t know you’re doing that much.”
Child restraints also are an area of concern.
“... Usually, if you have an adult that’s not restrained, you have a child that’s not restrained,” O’Bryant said.
“You would see as many folks with children not restrained as you would drunk drivers. We can’t understand that. We’ve had a child restraint law in this state for 20-plus years, 25 years I would imagine we are now,” Blackwood added. “A person who makes a conscience decision not to buckle their seat belt, they’re in violation of the law but that’s their decision. A little child can’t make that decision.”
The feedback since the H.E.A.T. unit began patrol has been “nothing but positive.”
“No. 1, people have thanked me for having these guys stop them and write them a warning because ‘I didn’t know this,’ ‘I shouldn’t have done that,’ ‘I should have been paying attention.’ ... The guys are not out here trying to bash any people; they’re not trying to write quotas. We’re not trying to write as many speeding tickets as we can get; we’re trying to save lives,” Millsap said. “I’ve gotten nothing but positive feedback. The fact that my three guys are the most professional. I haven’t gotten a single complaint from anybody in the state ..., the city or Bartow County that they’ve been stopped by my HEAT unit and said they were disrespectful or that they treated them like a dog.”