DUI checkpoints fail test; roving patrols better answer

There are lots of reasons to look forward to Labor Day: end-of-summer barbecues; an extra day off from work. But this holiday weekend, you might think twice before enjoying a beer at your family cookout. Las Vegas police are doubling down on drunken driving this Labor Day weekend, and that means sobriety checkpoints.

Advocates of sobriety checkpoints claim they deter and catch drunken drivers. But in reality, checkpoints are an ineffective enforcement measure that intimidates responsible social drinkers.

It’s a problem across the country. Take Hamilton County, Ind. In 2013, less than 4 percent of the county’s checkpoints yielded DUI arrests. In Colorado, more than 1,500 vehicles crawled through a single sobriety checkpoint this past May, yet police arrested a mere 1 percent of drivers on suspicion of drunken driving. Or consider West Virginia, where roughly 130,000 drivers sat through roadblocks between October 2010 and September 2011. These inspections yielded only 189 arrests, just 3.2 percent of the state’s total DUI arrests during that period.

Why are they so ineffective? For starters, sobriety checkpoints are extremely easy to avoid. Indeed, many states require law enforcement to publicly disclose the time and location of checkpoints well in advance. And even if this information wasn’t publicized, a driver can often spot the roadblock from a mile away.

Technology has also played a part in helping drunken drivers evade sobriety checkpoints. Today, many GPS systems come equipped with a feature that alerts you to any sobriety checkpoints on your route, and a number of smartphone applications are now available to serve the same purpose (yep, there’s an app for that). Drunken drivers can warn each other, too. All it takes is texting a friend a quick heads-up, or a social media post alerting all of your followers.

Checkpoint advocates like to argue that even though they produce very few drunken driving arrests, checkpoints are effective in deterring intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel in the first place. But this logic just doesn’t add up. Because checkpoints are so easy to avoid, we can’t discern which drunken drivers stayed off of the roads entirely and which drunken drivers just took another route home. Highly visible checkpoints deter responsible drinkers from having that single beer at holiday barbecues or ballgames before driving home.

If states really want to crack down on drunken driving, they should scrap sobriety checkpoints in favor of roving patrols — where police officers actively patrol to seek out drunken and dangerous drivers. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, active roving patrols can be 10 times more effective than passive sobriety checkpoints. In addition to better targeting drunken drivers, roving patrols also tackle the risks posed by other dangerous driving behaviors, such as speeding or distracted driving.

And they aren’t just more productive; roving patrols are far more cost-effective than the checkpoint system. Each roving patrol costs about $300, while a single sobriety checkpoint can cost between $8,000 and $10,000.

So this Labor Day weekend, let’s ditch sobriety checkpoints along with our white clothes. States should resist enforcement measures that try to catch drunken drivers in the checkpoint traps they already know to avoid. Instead, let’s use our tax dollars and our police officers more efficiently by utilizing roving patrols.

Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute.

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