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Have a Safe Mardi Gras 

It's Carnival time, and as the old song goes, everybody's having fun -- or so we hope. This year more than most, with New Orleans in the grips of a violent crime wave, revelers need to think as much about personal safety as passing a good time. It's easy enough to do both.

Truth be told, Mardi Gras historically is a fairly safe time in New Orleans, particularly on and near parade routes. One thing criminals don't like is large crowds with lots of witnesses and cops on the lookout. Equally important as protecting oneself from crime, we should all be concerned about protecting ourselves, our loved ones and our guests from accidents.

In that spirit, we offer the following Mardi Gras safety tips, which we hope our readers will cut out and keep handy during the parade season:

Arrive early and with a group. This solves several potential problems. First, getting where you want to be early means you're more likely to get a safe -- and legal -- parking spot. If you're going to a night parade, consider one of the many "paid" lots that churches and schools offer. Your vehicle and its contents will be safer. Moreover, parking fines are increased -- and towing is the order of the day -- along parade routes. Second, going to parades as a family, or with several families, only adds to the fun (and the safety) for everyone. Mardi Gras has always been about crowds, so bring your own. There's safety and fun in numbers. Third, pick out a post-parade meeting spot in case anyone gets separated or lost. And finally, give small children cards with your name and cell phone number printed on them -- and tell them to ask a police officer for help if they get separated from you. Parades are one place where it's easy to find a cop.

Give people their space. Many people arrive really early to stake out their space, some of them claiming the same spot year after year. They may have even camped out the night before, and therefore they feel they've earned the right to put a few chairs, ladders and blankets on that neutral ground. Let 'em have it. If you see a few empty chairs or a ladder with no one on it, don't treat it as "open space" that's there for the taking. Respect the fact that someone else got there way before you did. Once the parade starts, there's always plenty of room for everyone. Besides, many riders love to throw to the back of the crowd to reward those who respect others' space. And finally, if you're one of those who stake out space early, practice good chair and ladder etiquette: keep them behind police barricades; don't chain ladders together; and leave room for others.

Respect the police. Now more than ever, New Orleans needs to appreciate and respect its public safety officers. The ranks of our cops have dwindled drastically in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Those who remain work under tremendous personal strain, and their hours during Mardi Gras are longer than ever. New Orleans police are known worldwide for their prowess at crowd control, and it's rooted in a "live and let live" credo that indulges the spirit of the season. That said, cops deal with a lot during Carnival -- drunks, loudmouths, traffic and parade accidents, lost children, fights, rowdies, you name it -- and it's stressful. So, if a cop tells you to do something, just do it. Don't gripe, complain or get in his or her face. In fact, if you must say something to a cop, make it, "Thank you!"

Obey the (few) drinking laws. Almost anything goes in New Orleans, especially during Mardi Gras. But we do have some laws that don't bend, not even during Carnival, and that includes ordinances that relate to drinking and partying. Yes, it's legal to consume beer and booze openly on the streets -- as long as it's in a can or a cup, not a glass or a bottle. As an added measure, don't consume out of a metal container, either. Make it paper or plastic instead. Above all, make sure your grown kids and out-of-town guests obey the legal drinking age. It's 21. And while you're at it, make sure someone in the group is a designated driver -- and that they take that responsibility seriously.

Stay out of the street. Streets are for floats, bands, cops and flambeaux. Never cross the street between floats, and don't run up to a float from the front. Remember that floats are pulled from the front by tractors, and drivers have no clue that someone may be standing too close or in the wrong spot. Most of all, make sure you always know the whereabouts of all small children in your group. On that note, be careful when you put a small child on your shoulder -- you're not as nimble with their shifting weight there, and it's easy to get pushed to and fro, or even knocked down, in the rush of a crowd.

Mask! Hey, it's Mardi Gras, the one time of year and the one place on the planet where you can dress up as anything you can imagine. Don't just go to the greatest free show on earth -- be part of it!

Happy Mardi Gras.

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