Dozens of police chiefs and deputies from across Montgomery County gathered on the steps of the Montgomery County Court House Tuesday morning, in a show of solidarity for impaired driving enforcement during the holiday season.
A number of law enforcement, county, and state officials made brief remarks to raise awareness of the dangers of drunk driving and say what their agencies will be doing to help prevent accidents and deaths through the new year.
"85 to 90 percent of crashes are caused by driver behavior, such as drunk and impaired driving," said Scott Fletcher, PennDOT's assistant executive for services in the Greater Philadelphia area. "That's why PennDOT channels millions of federal highway funds to local police each year, to conduct extra enforcement and education."
Some of those funds end up with DUI enforcement teams throughout the county, in the form of overtime reimbursement and DUI checkpoint supplies. The Valley Forge DUI Enforcement Team, which pulls in members of about ten police departments from Collegeville to Conshohocken, is one such group.
"Being a part of [the Valley Forge team], I see the rise of traffic accidents during the holiday season, from Thanksgiving to New Years," said Corporal Bob Palermo, of the West Norriton Police Department, adding that the team will be conducting stops this month.
County statistics show that there were 510 crashes during the 2011 holiday season, of which 54 were alcohol-related. The numbers balloon statewide, with about 6,200 crashes and 68 fatalities reported during the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year travel periods in 2011.
Several officials who spoke warned against driving under the influence of drugs, a trend that has risen in recent years and worked to offset decreases in drunk driving.
"The message is clear: impaired driving is not going to be tolerated, whether it's alcohol or drugs. Prescription, over-the-counter, or designer drugs, and certainly not illicit drugs," said George Geisler, Eastern PA Law Enforcement Director for the Pennsylvania DUI Association, who added that the state has worked to educate officers on how to identify those under the influence of drugs.
Down the steps from the court house sat the DUI Victims Moving Memorial, a trailer converted into a replica of Harrisburg's DUI Victims' Memorial Garden, which displays the names of the thousands of people who have been killed by drunk driving.
Montgomery County First Assistant District Attorney Kevin Steele, speaking on behalf of an ill Risa Ferman, relayed a personal story of one of those victims.
"Every night I go into my daughter's room, and I see a bear that was given to her by a mother who lost her daughter during the holiday season," Steele said. "She came back from [college] and picked up some friends who were drinking even though she was not. She was doing the right thing, and was struck head on and killed."
Steele says he personally signs off on cases involving vehicular homicides-- 14 in Montgomery County so far this year.
"That means 14 people have been killed," Steele said. "14 families have lost a loved one, and it means the families of the drivers will lose their loved ones too, over something that be prevented."
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