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Livingston police on alert over holidays for drunk drivers

"Avoid the 11."

Along with the age-old "12 Days of Christmas" song with its maids a-milking and partridges in a pear tree, motorists could do well to remember the 11 Merced County law enforcement agencies that will gladly arrest anyone mixing drinking and driving.

Police departments from Merced, Atwater, Livingston, Los Banos, Dos Palos, Gustine, Merced College and UC Merced, the California Highway Patrol and Merced County Sheriff's Department, along with probation officers, make up the "Avoid the 11" campaign targeting drunken drivers over the holidays.

Merced Police Department Traffic Division Officer Dan Dabney, "Avoid the 11" coordinator, said the Christmas and New Year's holidays are one of the heaviest times of the year for impaired drivers.

"It's a lesson (not drinking and driving) some people never learn," Dabney said. "We (officers) are the people to avoid. There are always new people who reach age 21 who think they're invincible. It's a sad reality."

Last weekend, during the campaign's first concentrated effort, 23 drunken drivers were arrested throughout Merced County, considerably higher than customary totals.

This holiday season the "Avoid the 11" blitz involves sobriety checkpoints, courthouse stings, saturation patrols and warrant sweeps, all part of an effort to remove drunks from the road before they hurt or kill themselves or others, Dabney said.

Incidentally, Merced has seen three DUI-related wrecks this week.

A drunken driver was injured early Saturday morning in a two-vehicle rollover accident at Olive Avenue and Loughborough Drive. Early Thursday morning, a tipsy motorist driving on a suspended license from a previous drunken driving arrest crashed into a tree on West North Bear Creek Drive, injured his passenger and ran from the scene. At almost noon Wednesday, a drunken driver ran into a county car at 23rd and K streets, but no one was injured, police said.

Ten officers will be patrolling the streets of Atwater and Merced on Dec. 30 looking solely for drunken drivers. Officers also will be checking those on probation for drunken driving offenses to make sure they remain alcohol-free.

"With the coming of the holiday season, too often celebrations result in a tragic loss of life because of an alcohol-related traffic collision," Merced Police Chief Russ Thomas said. "Please help us in this worthy goal by not driving while drinking, and by using sober designated drivers if you have been drinking."

The Merced Police Department received a two-year, $201,749 Selective Traffic Enforcement Program grant from the state Office of Traffic safety. Much of the grant goes to pay officers' overtime for sobriety checkpoints, along with specialized signs.

Merced Police Officer Jeff Christensen, "Avoid the 11" public information officer, said the public can be very helpful by calling 911 when they spot suspected drunken drivers. Motorists calling the emergency number can relate location, direction of travel, make, model and license plate of the vehicle to help catch the offending inebriate.

Dabney said officers will be conducting courthouse stings, where they check DUI offenders with suspended or revoked drivers licenses who get behind the wheel right after leaving court.

Los Banos police will be conducting a sobriety checkpoint Friday, and Atwater police will stage one Saturday. Dabney said Merced police are planning saturation patrols throughout the city this weekend.

"Utilizing motorists to alert law enforcement to possible impaired drivers can greatly enhance our efforts," Christensen said. "And this outreach should also serve as a deterrent to potential drunk drivers. Be forewarned that your fellow motorists will have their eyes open. And with more than half of all motorists using cell phones, those who choose to drive impaired run a much greater risk of being caught."

Some of the clues drunken drivers give include making wide turns, straddling the center of the road, weaving or zigzagging across the road, driving 10 mph or slower below the speed limit, following others too closely, driving without lights or crossing into opposing traffic.

Alcohol impairs thoughts and changes the way people operate, making them more willing to drive when they have been drinking. Too many people are getting hurt, Dabney said.

Last year there were 1,597 alcohol-related deaths and more than 31,000 alcohol-related injuries in California, the eighth consecutive year these incidents have increased in the state.