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Sarah Longwell, Published March 15 2009

Sobriety stops a waste

As St. Paddy’s Day revelers get ready to don shamrock sunglasses and dye their beer green, North Dakota police are making some preparations of their own. As usual, law enforcement agencies will pour scarce resources into anti-drunken driving efforts by setting up roadside sobriety checkpoints. Unfortunately, experience suggests that those resources will be going to waste.

By putting resources into sobriety checkpoints, police officers will miss the opportunity to catch the majority of drunken and other dangerous drivers. In most cases, statistics show that these roadblocks catch only one or two – often zero – drunken drivers, while inconveniencing hundreds or even thousands of responsible drivers.

Checkpoints in California, Florida, New Jersey and Virginia failed to catch a single drunk driver over the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. One of the most glaring examples was a checkpoint in California that stopped 2,600 motorists and caught zero drunken drivers.

The numbers speak for themselves: 15 roadblocks reportedly stopped more than 13,000 drivers and caught 18 drunk drivers. That is a

0.1 percent success rate.

You may be thinking: “Good. That means 18 dangerous drivers were taken off the road.” True, but what if those same police officers could have removed 180 drunken drivers from the roads instead?

A tenfold increase in DUI arrests is possible, by shifting enforcement resources to roving patrols.

Instead of passively waiting for offenders to show up, when police officers actively seek out drunken and dangerous drivers, they are nearly 10 times as effective, according to testimony by a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official.

Checkpoints are ineffective in part because they are so easy to avoid. These roadblocks are highly visible by design and publicized in advance (a requirement in most states). Friends send text messages to warn each other. New iPhone and GPS applications even alert users to checkpoint locations. It’s easy for chronic drunken drivers to take a different route home. Only the dumbest of the bunch get caught at roadblocks.

What North Dakotans are paying for, then, is little more than an expensive publicity stunt.

Checkpoints typically cost taxpayers about $10,000 a pop. On the other hand, roving patrols, also known as saturation patrols, are a cheap and effective alternative. Additional patrols typically cost about $300 each.

Think about the crazy behavior you see on the roads every day: sports cars whizzing past on the right, commuters talking on a cell phone while speeding, “road rage” during rush hour.

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: 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 BAC (blood alcohol concentration) of 0.08 percent, the legal arrest threshold.

But sobriety checkpoints won’t catch drivers who are speeding, swerving, texting or driving aggressively.

What they will do is waste scarce taxpayer dollars, inconvenience thousands of responsible drivers, and fail to stop the most dangerous chronic drunken drivers.

This St. Paddy’s Day, North Dakota police ought to take heed of the lessons we’ve learned every other holiday season and forgo sobriety checkpoints for a strategy that has proved to be far more successful: roving patrols.

Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C., an association of restaurants committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages