ST. JOSEPH — In some cities, it is the top drinking night of the year, surpassing New Year’s Eve and St. Patrick’s Day. People are off work, college kids and distant friends return home, and no one has to be up early the next day.

It’s Thanksgiving Eve. For bars and restaurants, the night has the potential for a big payout. But for police in some communities, it can be the start of a nightmare.

Based on historical data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that over this Thanksgiving weekend, from 6 p.m. today to 6 a.m. Monday, 454 people will die in automobile crashes. And it’s just the start.

According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), last year more than 1,000 people died in drunk-driving crashes from 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Eve through New Year’s Eve, with 133 being killed in such crashes over the long Thanksgiving weekend.  

“A record number of Americans plan to take to the roads (Wednesday),” said MADD National President Helen Witty, whose 16-year-old daughter Helen Marie was killed by an impaired driver. “The increase in holiday travelers, combined with a surge in alcohol sales and people reconnecting with friends the night before Thanksgiving could make it one of the deadliest.” 

Police here say for the most part it has not been too much a problem.

“I don’t know whether I’d put it at the New Year’s Eve level,” said Berrien County Undersheriff Chuck Heit. “It’s definitely a night we’re aware of that we try to be very vigilant. People are going out to different establishments. The bars are pretty busy that night. People are back from college. Kids go out that night.”

But Heit said looking at the numbers in Berrien County over the last few years, there’s really no clear difference in drunken-driving arrests on the night before Thanksgiving compared with other Wednesdays in November.

Heit said he’s not certain he’ll have extra patrols out on Thanksgiving Eve, but, “Our normal patrols will be active and aware. We’d ask people to use caution and make plans. Make sure they have a designated driver. You’d hate to ruin a holiday because of a poor decision.”

Sgt. Chris Mendus with the St. Joseph Department of Public Safety said there seems to be less nightlife in the city than in past years.

“We’ve had some bars that have transitioned to closing a bit earlier. Nothing good happens after midnight or 11 (p.m.). It’s gotten better because we have fewer drunk drivers on the road, at least in this community,” Mendus said. “We’re still getting the operating while intoxicated accidents, but our department’s numbers are down in recent years.”

Still, he said, the night before Thanksgiving deserves some caution.

“A lot of kids are back from school, catching up with old friends, seeing a lot of people they haven’t seen for awhile. It’s an extended weekend. And the only thing they have to do the next day is eat and watch football,” Mendus said.

His advice for bar-goers: “Utilize Uber, plan with friends or family for a designated driver, and if you think you’ve had too much too drink, call someone.”

Contact: jswidwa@TheHP.com, 932-0359, Twitter: @HPSwidwa