No one will argue that saving lives is not a serious business.
This past weekend, Operation Thunder — the three-month campaign which began on February 14 to help rein in dangerous drivers throughout Augusta-Richmond County— returned to the Garden City’s streets.
Officers were out in full force and their demeanor along these checkpoints, while polite, can be more than a little intimidating to the most responsible and sober drivers.
These checkpoints are making more and more people think twice about even heading out to dinner or to a club on Friday or Saturday nights.
For those Augustans who haven’t experienced one of the checkpoints, here’s the scenario:
As you approach the checkpoint, a non-Richmond County officer assigned to work Operation Thunder by the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety will walk up to your vehicle. He or she will request your driver’s license and proof of insurance, while scanning your car and smelling for any illegal substances.
All the while, a drug canine is trotting up and down the line of cars, trying to catch the scent of an illegal substance.
One person stopped this weekend was asked by an officer, “Where are y’all coming from?”
After telling the officer where they had been that night, the officer proceeded to ask, “Where are y’all headed to?”
These questions are expected if you are an American citizen trying to cross the border into Canada or Mexico, but not when you are simply trying to drive down Riverwatch Parkway headed towards Columbia County.
If anyone begins to act suspicious, the officer asks the driver to pull into the outside lane where Richmond County deputies will address them. Only local officers can issue citations or make arrests. There are even paramedics available at the side of road to immediately draw blood to test a driver’s blood alcohol level if necessary.
It’s a pretty wild and uncomfortable experience for many people.
On Friday and Saturday nights, officers made a total of 47 arrests on charges of driving under the influence. Officers also discovered 10 cases involving open container violations, 52 child-seat violations and eight misdemeanor drug cases.
It was apparently a very busy couple of nights for deputies stationed at checkpoints along Richmond Hill Road at Bungalow Road, Stevens Creek Road at Claussen Drive, Kissingbower Road, Lumpkin Road, Riverwatch Parkway and Washington Road.
While this three-month operation technically ended in June, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office stated the Governor’s Office of Highway Safety will allow follow-up weekend checkpoints upon request.
With the holiday season well underway, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office officially requested and was approved for the additional manpower from the state.
So, Augustans and motorists from the surrounding counties should expect more checkpoints throughout the rest of the year.
That is unwelcome news for restaurant and bar owners in all of Richmond County, particularly those in downtown Augusta.
For some downtown businesses, sales were extremely down during the initial three-month stretch of Operation Thunder.
This particular campaign puts these owners in a very difficult position because they don’t want to criticize the mission of the sheriff’s office to reduce the number of hazardous drivers on the streets. That goal should be applauded, but they also realize it is crippling their businesses.
These restaurant and bar owners are stuck in a no-win situation.
Now that this weekend’s latest checkpoint has again put the fear in many folks of traveling downtown and having a glass of wine with dinner, some restaurant owners are bracing for another couple of slow months.
So, while Operation Thunder may very well be saving lives by getting drunk drivers off the streets (which, again, no one would ever argue is a bad thing), it is also slowly killing some of the much-needed revenue in downtown bars and restaurants.
And the truth is, these financial woes may continue long into the future.
Just last month, the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office announced that it received a $625,000 grant to develop a Highway Enforcement of Aggressive Traffic (HEAT) unit.
Earlier this year, Lt. Lewis Blanchard of the Community Services Division of the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office told the Metro Spirit that the department was looking to establish a three-man HEAT unit in Augusta.
“It’s funded by the state for an extended period of time of up to three years,” Blanchard said, adding the grant will pay for two of the officers’ salaries and new, fully-equipped police cruisers with top-rated technology.
It’s a great program that will help reduce impaired driving and excessive speeding on Richmond County streets. But it may also likely reduce the amount of foot traffic into downtown restaurants and bars for possibly the next three years.
That is a worrisome scenario with no easy solution.
Aren’t there any state or federal grants out there that would allow for free shuttle or bus services in the downtown area on Friday or Saturday nights?
No? Of course, not.
Good luck, downtown Augusta. We’re pulling for you.