Guest columnist Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C., says sobriety checkpoints are not effective in finding intoxicated drivers. | File photo
Updated: January 3, 2012 9:11AM
The holiday season is a time for family, friends and feasting. But while you’re busy enjoying the holidays, many police officers are busy with sobriety checkpoints.
Unfortunately, checkpoints do a terrible job of finding those who have overindulged, and they distract police from finding dangerous drivers on our nation’s roadways.
Skeptical? The numbers speak for themselves. Consider that over 1 million vehicles went through 1,469 California sobriety checkpoints in 2008. Police arrested just one-third of 1 percent of those motorists for drunken driving. A similar analysis found that in 2007, less than 1 percent of the more than 181,000 drivers stopped at Pennsylvania checkpoints were arrested.
Instead of inefficiently stopping every car on the road in the elusive hunt for drunken drivers, roving patrols stand a better chance at getting dangerous drivers — be they distracted or drunk — off the streets.
Roving, or saturation, patrols consist of police officers driving around to actively seek out drunken and dangerous drivers instead of passively waiting at a roadblock for drunken drivers to come to them. Patrols are up to 10 times more effective than checkpoints, according to testimony by a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official.
Case in point: In West Virginia from October 2010 to September 2011, state police conducted 258 sobriety checkpoints involving about 130,00 vehicles. The result? Only 189 DUI arrests, or 3.2 percent of the 5,900 total statewide DUI arrests.
The problem with checkpoints is that they’re easy to avoid. These roadblocks are highly visible by design and publicized well in advance (a requirement in many states). Friends can text warnings to each other. GPS and iPhone applications even alert users to checkpoint locations.
Supporters of checkpoints will tell you that they deter drunken drivers, but it’s an impossible point to prove. It’s too easy for chronic drunken drivers to take a different course to avoid them.
These exercises in futility are extremely expensive. Checkpoints can cost more than $10,000 each time they’re set up compared to $300 for each roving patrol. Considering how tight state and local budgets are in this dismal economy, is it really a wise investment?
If we want to develop a cost-effective strategy, we’ll reduce checkpoints and beef up roving patrols. In addition to stopping drunken drivers, patrols also catch drivers engaging in any number of other dangerous activities, such as reckless driving, speeding and texting while driving.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of a roving patrol strategy that cracks down on a wide range of traffic offenders. Why? Because a number of these other driving behaviors are actually more dangerous than driving drunk.
Statistics show that talking on a cell phone, driving while drowsy and traveling a mere 7 mph above the speed limit are all riskier than driving with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent, the legal arrest threshold for drunken driving.
This holiday season, let’s put our resources into law enforcement tactics that work and make sure that all our friends and family are safe out on the roads.
Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C., an association of restaurants committed to the responsible serving of alcoholic beverages.