The well-publicized effort began Feb. 14 in Richmond County and ended the first weekend of June. Traffic officers from across the state came to Augusta each weekend to assist in road checks and other operations to crack down on driving violations.
The Governor’s Office of Highway Safety started the “high visibility” campaign in 2007. This year, it approached Sheriff Richard Roundtree after the county recorded 42 traffic fatalities in 2012 after steadily increasing for at least three years.
Traffic fatalities are down by nearly half compared from this time a year ago. Nine people have died on roads this year.
Sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard said those seconds spent with people during roadblocks gave police an insight into problems. It showed police what areas need more focus, Blanchard said, and which areas are more likely to have intoxicated drivers.
DUI and child restraint cases were two categories in which officers saw higher numbers during Operation Thunder.
The number of child seat cases led deputies to be sent to a class for several days this month to learn how to identify seat problems, Blanchard said.
Police had hoped that by operation’s end they would find fewer DUI cases. That didn’t happen, Blanchard said, but they did see a nearly 50 percent decrease in DUI arrests in the final weeks.
“We know the word of mouth worked,” he said. “The more it (the operation) progressed, the more we’d hear ‘I’m ready. I’ve got my designated driver.’”
Police made 307 DUI arrests and issued 488 citations for child seat violations. Normal traffic operations for the period in 2012 produced 172 DUI arrests and 85 child seat citations.
Another surprise for deputies was the number of teens violating license restrictions or out past curfew. In those cases, police called a parent to come get the teen.
Revenue from the citations has not been tallied. According to the Richmond County Clerk of Court’s office, a small percentage of the money can return to the sheriff’s office through the Augusta Commission, but the money comes with stipulations.
Blanchard said the department will closely follow the statistics in coming months to see whether trends return to pre-operation levels.
“We believe we will be able to maintain the momentum we started,” he said.
Part of that momentum will be focused through use of a 40-man traffic unit. Under previous administrations, the traffic unit was smaller and officers also responded to other calls. Now the unit is focused strictly on traffic issues.
Blanchard said roadchecks will continue, but they will not be as large or frequent.
If the numbers do return, he said, “We’ll have to do something. We owe it to the people.”