Increase expectedin weekend trafficon highways, airways

By Jeff Lehr

Globe Staff Writer

Largely spared a typical summer's rigors, area residents can set out for other digs this Labor Day weekend, the traditional holiday bookend to the season, with expectations for decent weather, plenty of fellow travelers and slightly fewer "boot blocks" for Jerry's kids.

Mike Right of AAA's St. Louis office said motorists and airline passengers alike can expect more company this Labor Day weekend than last year.

"Overall nationwide, we anticipate 34.1 million Americans on a trip of 50 miles or more," Right said. "That's an increase of 2.2 percent from a year ago."

An estimated 84 percent of those looking to get away, or 28.7 million, will be doing so by motor vehicle, Right said. Eleven percent, or 3.9 million, will be traveling by air, and about 5 percent, or 1.5 million, by other means, he said.

More money, less fear

The projection for a greater clogging of the nation's arteries and capillaries this Labor Day weekend is being attributed to a somewhat improved economy and to a lessening of anxieties about traveling in an American public one year further removed from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 three years ago.

Right said the projection for air travel this weekend is up 4 percent compared with that of 2003, while that for motor-vehicle travel is up just 2 percent. Fairly reasonable current airfares to selective destinations are another factor, he said.

Right said the character of Labor Day weekend has been changing in recent years and, with it, the nature of people's last trips of the summer.

"It used to be Labor Day marked the end of summer and the beginning of the school year," he said. "Now, more and more schools are beginning in August. Certainly, it isn't as big a deal as it once was for youngsters."

As a consequence, the motoring public tends to stay closer to home for Labor Day weekend and take shorter trips than was the case 20 years ago, he said.

The weather also may play a role in Labor Day weekend plans.

Spared the need for air conditioning for most of June and several days in August, area residents may be finding themselves with a little extra cash for travel this weekend from savings on utility bills. The National Weather Service's forecasts for the next three days appear inviting to travelers.

Steve Lindenberg, a meteorologist with the service's office in Springfield, said that while there is a slight chance of showers and thunderstorms developing from late Saturday night to Monday, the weekend should offer predominantly good weather, with highs in the mid- to upper 80s and lows in the low to mid-60s.

Booting out boot blocks?

Motorists in Missouri, Oklahoma and Kansas will be encountering the usual boot blocks for Jerry's kids in conjunction with the annual Muscular Dystrophy Association Telethon this Labor Day weekend, and they may wish to convert some of their summer savings on utilities to sufficient change to make it through the lines of firemen.

There will be slightly fewer of the fund-raising boot blocks conducted by area fire departments at busy intersections this year.

Carthage has been designated "a boot-block-free zone" by city officials concerned about the safety of such fund-raising efforts.

As an alternative means of raising money for Jerry's kids, the Carthage Fire Department put on a Firemen's Ball on Aug. 21 that brought in $1,700 for the cause. The department also has been selling raffle tickets for a drawing Monday that will bring in additional donations in the Carthage community.

Fire Chief John Cooper said he agrees with the change in approach. Boot blocks do pose some danger to the firefighters and volunteers collecting at busy intersections, he said. He said people who still want to donate in that fashion this weekend may stop by the parking lot of the Carthage fire station at Garrison Avenue and Chestnut Street and make their contributions.

"It looks like we're going to make about the same amount of money this year," Cooper said of the change for his department. "And next year, we'll probably get a little bigger. So, it's worked out well."

New Joplin fire Chief Gary Trulson said his department will be "transitioning to a different method of (raising money for the telethon) for next year" because of the safety concerns.

Boot blocks will be conducted by Joplin firefighters today and Saturday at Seventh Street and Maiden Lane, and at 20th Street and Connecticut Avenue. But the department will shift its boot handlers to the front entrance of the Wal-Mart Supercenter on Range Line from 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Sunday and from 9 a.m. to noon Monday, Trulson said.

That type of approach, combined with other fund-raising efforts, probably will be taken by the Joplin Fire Department in the coming years, Trulson said.

Stepping up patrols

The Missouri State Highway Patrol is addressing public safety this Labor Day weekend by stepping up patrol of the state's highways and participating with local law-enforcement agencies in Operation Combined Accident Reduction Effort from 6 p.m. today until 11:59 p.m. Monday.

Fourteen people were killed and 684 injured in 1,487 traffic accidents in Missouri during last year's Labor Day counting period, according to the state patrol. Sixty-five people have been killed and 3,271 injured in Labor Day weekend crashes in the state over the past five years, the patrol said.

Travelers needing assistance or wishing to report a drunken or careless driver, or illegal activity on the state's highways may call the patrol's emergency hot line at (800) 525-5555 or dial *55 on a cellular telephone.

The patrol's hot line for road conditions is (800) 222-6400 or (573) 526-8828.

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