Scrap holiday sobriety checkpoints; use roving patrols

Traditionally, Thanksgiving signifies the official beginning of the holiday season — though most malls have had Christmas displays up since Halloween. But while most people look forward to gorging on turkey and pie, Thanksgiving marks the start of a much less pleasant tradition: sitting and waiting through holiday sobriety checkpoints.

While traffic snarls are touted by many traffic safety advocates as necessary to catch drunk drivers, their effectiveness leaves much to be desired.

For instance, in Ohio, police conducted 135 sobriety checkpoints between Jan. 1 and September of this year, but more than a third of those checkpoints yielded zero drunk driving arrests. In addition to local police force work on checkpoints, 1,500 state troopers spent more than 5,000 hours stopping Ohio vehicles, yet sobriety checkpoints only accounted for 0.4 percent of all those stopped for impaired driving.

Ohio certainly isn’t alone in checkpoint ineffectiveness. In West Virginia, between October 2010 and September 2011, roughly 130,000 drivers were stopped at 258 sobriety checkpoints across the state. Of all these inspections, only 189 arrests were made — a mere 3.2 percent of total statewide DUI arrests during the same period of time.

One reason for such low success rates is that the checkpoints are so easy to avoid. These roadblocks are easily sighted from far away and are typically publicized well in advance (many states actually require their times and locations to be publicly disclosed beforehand).

Additionally, with the evolution of technology, drivers can now send “heads-up” text messages to friends, not to mention that many GPS and iPhone applications even pinpoint checkpoint locations on the map.

Checkpoint advocates nonetheless claim roadblocks are still effective because they deter drunk driving in the first place. But with the ease of avoiding such checkpoints, we have no idea how many drunk drivers simply take another way. In other words, these baseless claims amount to trying to prove a negative — a logical fallacy.

If protecting the streets from law-breaking motorists were the true objective, roving patrols — where police officers actively patrol and seek out drunk and dangerous drivers — would be a far more effective tactic. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, such active engagement can be 10 times more effective than the passive checkpoints drivers know to avoid.

What’s more is the enormous expense of sobriety checkpoints. While each roving patrol costs roughly $300, it can cost over $10,000 per checkpoint. Such excessive costs are difficult to justify considering the dire straits of many state and local government budgets.

A more cost-effective strategy would eliminate sobriety checkpoints in favor of increasing roving patrols. Such a strategy would not only take more drunk drivers off the road, but would also snatch drivers engaging in a wide array of other dangerous activities, from reckless speeding to aggressive driving to texting behind the wheel.

This latter point — snatching other dangerous drivers — is important, as a number of these bad actors can be far more dangerous than drivers who had a glass of wine with Thanksgiving dinner. Statistics show that talking on a cell phone, driving while sleepy or speeding by a mere 7 mph results in more accidents than driving with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.08, the legal threshold at which one is presumed intoxicated.

So this holiday season, rather than pestering law-abiding citizens with ineffective and costly sobriety checkpoints, let’s instead devote our resources to more efficient tactics. After all, while checkpoints won’t catch people driving under the influence of turkey, roving patrols could protect us from drivers suffering from Tryptophan-induced food comas.

Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.

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