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NDHP pulling out stops for holiday presence

In this April 2004 photo, a North Dakota Highway Patrol officer speaks to a driver on southbound Interstate 29 near 12th Avenue North near Fargo.

BISMARCK -- The day before Thanksgiving is one of the busiest holiday travel days and this year the North Dakota Highway Patrol is pulling out all the stops to foster safety.

It's called Operation HITS.

"HITS" stands for high-intensity traffic saturation, meaning that all available sworn Highway Patrol personnel will be working the road.

"And that's from the colonel on down," said Sgt. Tom Iverson, a trooper who normally doesn't work patrol but will be today.

Also, starting today and running through September 2013, the Minnesota State Patrol will focus extra attention on the state's 13 counties with the highest combined totals of drunken driving traffic deaths and alcohol-related serious injuries, according to a news release from Minnesota State Patrol Sgt. Jesse Grabow. Becker and Otter Tail counties made the list at 11th and 13th place, respectively.

The enforcement effort will begin today with expanded DWI patrols.

In North Dakota, Iverson estimated there may be twice the typical number of Highway Patrol personnel on the roads today. They will be looking for major factors contributing to fatal crashes: speeding, alcohol consumption and failure to use seat belts.

About 70 percent of fatal crashes in the state involve situations where seat belts were not used, said Capt. Bryan Niewind with the Highway Patrol.

North Dakota experienced a record 148 fatalities on its roads and highways last year, and this year the number is already at 146, according to Iverson, who said the Oil Patch has been a hot spot for deadly crashes.

He said the northwest region of the state has seen 64 fatalities so far this year, compared to 31 for the northeast region and 30 in the southeast region, including the Fargo area.

Iverson said he doesn't know the last time such a saturation patrol was held in North Dakota, but he said today's enforcement effort is unprecedented in the nine years he has been with the Highway Patrol.

In Minnesota, the 13 counties with the worst DUI and alcohol-related crash numbers account for almost half of the state's drunk driving deaths and more than half of the states' alcohol-related serious injuries.

But while fatal crash numbers have been at record-high levels in North Dakota, Minnesota's 368 fatal crashes in 2011 were at their lowest number since 1944, according to a state report.

Grabow said so far this year, there have been 332 fatal crashes in Minnesota. Last year at this time, the number was at 306, he said.

Besides Becker and Otter Tail, the other Minnesota counties targeted for increased enforcement are: Hennepin; Ramsey; St. Louis; Anoka; Dakota; Olmsted; Washington; Stearns; Wright; Sherburne; and Meeker.