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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- If you were driving one of the 18,747 vehicles Kansas City police stopped at drunken-driving checkpoints last year, odds are you weren't arrested.
In fact, only 1.6 percent of those drivers were arrested for being drunk.
Police departments around the Kansas City area and the country spend thousands of dollars a year on DUI checkpoints with similar results. While police defend checkpoints as a great public relations tool against drunken driving, there are better ways to catch drunken drivers, experts say.
Take saturation patrols, where police cruise city streets in search of swerving cars that may be driven by drunks. They are cheaper to conduct and more efficient -- for each car that police officers stop, they are almost four times as likely to catch a drunken driver.
Five of the larger Kansas City area police departments stopped 25,510 vehicles at checkpoints last year, but only 2,765 during saturation patrols. Both efforts produced arrests -- traffic tickets, but also outstanding warrants, drug violations and alcohol-related offenses such as driving with an open container. In fact, saturation patrols yielded more charges -- 3,100 -- than the number of cars stopped. The total arrest rate for the checkpoints: 2.8 percent.
And the saturation patrols cost $31.68 per ticket or arrest. The checkpoint price tag? $184.84.
Police concede that checkpoints don't catch a lot of drunken drivers. The statistics don't reflect the lives saved by those who chose a designated driver because they knew a checkpoint awaited them, they say.
Some studies show the benefits of these police-intensive checkpoints.
In one, alcohol-related fatality crashes dropped 20 percent during and almost two years after a yearlong blitz of 882 checkpoints in Tennessee. At the same time, drunken-driving deaths increased slightly in the five surrounding states that did not take part in the blitz, which was coupled with an intense media campaign.
Surveys of Tennessee drivers showed that the checkpoints generated good PR for the anti-drunken-driving cause.
A 1995 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration evaluation of several DUI enforcement efforts showed that 80 percent of those surveyed were aware of the checkpoints -- a deterrence to drunken driving, researchers concluded. Significantly fewer drivers were aware of saturation patrols, the study found.
But is good PR enough?
Eugene O'Donnell, a former prosecutor and New York City police officer who teaches police studies at New York's John Jay College of Criminal Justice, questions that rationale for checkpoints.
"You could say if you catch one drunk driver out of a thousand it sends a message," O'Donnell said. "But is that (a checkpoint) really a good use of resources? ... Law enforcement is loath to acknowledge whether anything is ineffective."
And here is the problem police grapple with: Traffic deaths caused by drunken drivers haven't changed much in the past 10 years, both nationally and locally. For example, Kansas has seen some improvement. However, Missouri's alcohol fatality rate for every mile driven remains above the national average.
A 1997 North Carolina study showed that officers failed to catch more than half the drivers passing through a checkpoint with a blood alcohol content higher than .08 percent. After checkpoint officers deemed the drivers sober and let them drive on, researchers interviewed the drivers and took voluntary breath samples.
"People who are repeat drunk drivers are able to get through," said O'Donnell, the John Jay College professor. "It would be a giant myth that if you are drunk and you are stopped at a checkpoint that you're going to get arrested. That might come as a surprise."
Critics such as Longwell want to swap DUI checkpoints for saturation patrols.
"If we're diverting money to checkpoints, that leaves less for saturation patrols, which also can catch speeders and some idiot swerving while on his cell phone," Longwell said.