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BLOOMINGTON - Illinois is on track to record fewer traffic deaths this year than in 2004, but New Year's Eve - when drinking and driving is common - is still looming.

Preliminary figures indicate 1,338 people died statewide because of traffic crashes in 2005, five fewer than in 2004, said Master Sgt. Rick Hector of the Illinois State Police. His and other state agencies hope to bring the numbers to below 1,000 in coming years.

"When you're talking, each year, over 1,300 people in Illinois dying on our roadways, that's still very sad news," Hector said.

Hector thinks educational campaigns have reduced the number of people drinking and driving, and many are staying where they are to sober up or using public transportation or a designated driver.

"Most people, when they celebrate, have gotten the message, which is a good thing," Hector said. "They know that police officers, this weekend, are going to be very diligent when it comes to being on the lookout for individuals who are driving under the influence."

Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Matt Vanover said the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes this year were not available. But on average, about 45 percent involve drunk drivers yearly, he said.

The transportation department has been providing grants to state and local law enforcement to staff 1,100 "saturation patrols" between Dec. 20 and Jan. 1, Vanover said.

"If you're going to drink on New Year's Eve, please don't drive," Vanover said.

Hector said it is unfortunate many people haven't gotten that message. "We're still killing around 16,000 to 17,000 people every year in the United States due to someone driving under the influence," Hector said.

IDOT information indicated there were fewer traffic-related deaths in 2004 than in any of the prior 60 years. The number of deaths on state highways and interstates dropped about 9 percent this year, but the number increased by about 10 percent on county and local roads.

Central Illinois state police districts have preliminary data indicating how drivers have fared in their areas, but those figures are subject to change.

Illinois State Police Capt. Suzanne Jansky said fatal accidents dropped by about one-third from 2004 to 2005 in her district, which covers McLean, Livingston and De Witt counties. Her data shows 28 people died in crashes in those counties in 2005, down from 43 in 2004, she said.

Jansky said that total is the lowest for her district since 2001. "I'm very pleased with our enforcement and educational efforts this year," Jansky said.

But police in the seven-county state police district that includes Logan and Sangamon counties saw an increase in fatal accidents, from 34 in 2004 to 55 so far this year, according to district data.

Lt. Dean Kennedy, whose district covers Tazewell, Woodford, Peoria, Marshall and Stark counties, said the number of people who died in crashes appears to have dropped from 63 last year to 43 this year.

Kennedy said much of the drop came in Peoria County, where officers saw a spike of fatal accidents in 2004.

By Dec. 29, 2004, 39 people had died in traffic accidents in the county - including about 10 who were pedestrians or bicyclists in the City of Peoria, Kennedy said. By Thursday, there had been 13 total deaths in the county.

Hector said the drop in traffic deaths in recent years has been encouraging, but many can still be prevented. He encouraged people to wear seatbelts, saying they are a person's best defense against a drunk driver.

Police said Bloomington had three fatal accidents this year and Normal had one.

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