For many, Wednesday night is when Thanksgiving festivities ramp up, as returning family members and college students visit friends at bars and restaurants.

"Traditionally, [Thanksgiving eve] is one of the bigger bar nights," said Randy Erickson, president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association and general manager of a TGI Friday's in Bloomington. "It's a big get-together night."

One difference that State Patrol Capt. Matthew Langer sees between Thanksgiving eve and other occasions such as New Year's or St. Patrick's Day is that the latter two have more planned parties, cab rides and other efforts to get less-than-sober people home safely.

"The night before Thanksgiving is ad hoc," Langer said. "Everybody goes out, but without the big emphasis on planning how to get home."

Wednesday night also will be busy for law enforcement, with stepped-up patrols kicking in to deter drunken driving during one of the deadliest holiday periods of the year.

Over the past five years, there have been a total of 154 alcohol-related crashes on Minnesota roads during Thanksgiving eve and day. Six people were killed, matching New Year's for the fourth-highest total among two-day holiday periods, behind St. Patrick's Day, July 4th and Memorial Day.

The number of drunken-driving arrests has been substantial, too, averaging 291 for the two-day Thanksgiving period during those five years, compared with an average of 196 for any two-day period last year.

Chris Erickson, a 17-year state trooper and night-shift veteran, is one of those who will be on patrol this week. He has compelling personal reasons for joining the effort.

Erickson has been injured twice by drunken drivers -- both times while he was ticketing other suspected drunken drivers. He wasn't seriously hurt either time, but one of his best friends still has trouble walking because of an alcohol-related three-vehicle crash that killed six people, including the friend's baby son and girlfriend.

"We'll be chomping at the bit" when the enhanced patrols roll, Erickson said. "You just never know which person you take off the road might have gone on down the road and killed someone or themselves. ...With DWI enforcement you always make a difference."

"We know the Thanksgiving holiday period is a deadly one," said Nathan Bowie, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety. Impaired driving is one of the key factors, he said, along with not using seat belts.

Thanksgiving also kicks off the holiday season that brings "the height of parties and gatherings and alcohol," Langer said. Mix in winter road conditions and sports event-related drinking, and it adds up to potential problems.

"Plan ahead and get home safely," Langer said. "Don't run the risk of sitting in jail on Thanksgiving morning or, worse yet, being killed or injured in a crash."

Telltale signs

Erickson, who led state troopers for three years in drunken-driving arrests, said the worst part of alcohol-related crashes for him is having to notify family members that a loved one has been killed. It's "knocking on the door at 2 or 3 a.m. and seeing the look on their faces," he said.

Impaired drivers display telltale signs that lead officers to pull them over.

"They are not able to multi-task," Erickson said. "People fluctuate in their speed up and down; they are concentrating on keeping the vehicle between the lines. Or else they are weaving onto the shoulder. They are often well over the speed limit. Even a few miles an hour over the limit can mean they are not paying attention to driving."

Erickson also has seen firsthand the effects of drinking in training sessions when volunteers are served drinks and troopers give them Breathalyzer tests. After a drink or two, some volunteers say they shouldn't drive, he said, but an hour and several drinks later "the same people say they'd be fine to drive."

"I can't stress enough the message that people need to plan ahead before their judgment goes out the window due to alcohol."

Jim Adams • 612-673-7658