Law enforcement officers have always been committed to reducing drunk driving on America's roadways. Far too often, we see the senseless losses caused by impaired drivers. Yet despite substantially more state laws aimed at reducing drunk driving, the number of DUI arrests nationally has remained essentially level for more than a decade. Not surprisingly, alcohol-traffic fatalities decreased by only five percentage points over the same time period, despite dramatic reductions from 1982 1994.
Impaired driving crashes cause some 17,000 fatalities and 305,000 injuries every year. And, in addition to the danger drunk driving presents to motorists in general, officers are often victims of crashes caused by impaired drivers more than 700 officers were killed in motor-vehicle crashes during the past 10 years.
Fortunately, working smarter and taking advantage of updated techniques and technologies can reduce impaired-driving crashes. There are many ways to get drunk drivers off the road, including deterrence, enforcement and technology.
Low-manpower sobriety checkpoints have proven to be effective deterrents, and 39 states and Washington, D.C., now allow sobriety checkpoints. Saturation patrols, particularly those using high-visibility techniques, also work well. Finally, emerging technologies offer real promise for future advances in enforcing impaired driving laws. The bottom line: Your agency should employ a host of these strategies to reduce the ongoing impaired-driving threat.
Sobriety Checkpoints: The Low-Manpower Method
Highly publicized and frequent sobriety checkpoints have been documented to reduce alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes by about 20 percent. However, many agencies automatically answer "No" to requests for increased sobriety checkpoints. Too expensive, too manpower intensive, not enough arrests, too boring for officers, etc., they say. Truth be told, some of these objections have merit in the traditional mega-officer checkpoints.
However, new low-manpower checkpoint models now exist. In this model, an agency uses as few as three to five officers to conduct a two-hour checkpoint without losing effectiveness or using overtime. When held on a weekly basis, agencies including small departments can achieve amazing reductions in drunk driving. In two rural West Virginia counties (Greenbrier and Raleigh), for instance, the rate of drivers with a blood-alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 percent or more decreased by 64 percent after a year-long, low-manpower DUI checkpoint enforcement program. That's real progress and well worth the effort. Bottom line: More than half of all alcohol-related fatalities occur on rural roadways and 80 percent of enforcement agencies in the U.S. are comprised of 25 officers or fewer, so low-manpower enforcement strategies have real potential for contributing to a dramatic reduction in impaired-driving deaths in the U.S.
The Nuts & Bolts
One of the main reasons to hold a checkpoint is to deter drunk driving, regardless of the number of arrests made at the actual checkpoint. While community members may hear their political and enforcement leaders commit to reducing drunk driving, individuals need to see this commitment in action through frequent and highly visible enforcement.
After all, if an officer makes five DUI arrests in one night, usually the only people who know of the arrests are the drivers and perhaps their families, the enforcement agency and the booking officers. Yes, newspapers may run lists of these arrests, but potential drunk drivers typically do not read these newspaper entries. Research clearly shows that when drivers perceive through visible deterrence and enforcement activities that they are likely to be stopped and arrested for impaired driving, the number of people who drive impaired decreases.
Experience in communities across the country has shown that to substantially decrease the frequency of impaired driving and associated crash outcomes, agencies should hold sobriety checkpoints weekly, not holiday-only. This enforcement activity must be highly visible and involve the media, and should be supported by ongoing aggressive impaired-driving enforcement. Additionally, the enforcement efforts should integrate into public information and education outreach.
Two specific resources are available for agencies who wish to make low-staffing sobriety checkpoints a component of their impaired driving enforcement efforts: Low-Staffing Sobriety Checkpoints, a guide released in April 2006 by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA, www.nhtsa.dot.gov), and The PASpoint System Passive Sensors at Mini-Checkpoints: Bringing Australia's Random Breath-Test System to the United States, a system developed in 2003 by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation and published by the Transportation Research Board (www.madd.org/docs/PassiveSensor.pdf).
In-depth information and sample operational plans for low-manpower sobriety checkpoints are available in these documents, but the basic considerations are as follows:
Current & Future Technology
PAS have been available for several years, and the use of this technology at low-manpower sobriety checkpoints gives officers the ability to screen drivers quickly and accurately. One department that used PAS at weekly checkpoints increased its DUI citation efficiency rate at checkpoints by more than 59 percent, an increase any shift supervisor or chief will surely appreciate.
The sensors, typically built into a flashlight, detect the presence of alcohol in ambient air. When five out of 10 bars on the PAS light up, the probability the driver has been drinking is 90 percent. One study showed that PAS proved effective in detecting three of four drivers with a positive BAC, while giving a false-positive result in only three of 100 drivers with a 0 BAC.
This technology is particularly effective in increasing the DUI arrest rate of heavy drinkers. Because higher BAC drivers are more tolerant of alcohol and can often mask typical signs of impairment, up to half of these drivers go undetected at interview-only checkpoints.
Departments interested in using PAS should check with their prosecuting attorneys regarding jurisdictional issues. Legal analysis conducted in 1986 suggests using PAS is not considered a search because the driver is not required to provide a breath sample.
Other emerging technologies designed to reduce drunk driving include infrared sensing, subdural BAC sensing through the steering wheel and algorithms to detect weaving.
Saturation DUI Patrols
Intense DUI enforcement efforts in which an agency identifies specific locations to concentrate enforcement for a limited amount of time remain an important enforcement strategy. And, agencies can employ many of the techniques listed above for low-manpower checkpoints to increase the visibility and deterrence effect of saturation patrols. Visibility and frequency is critical for saturation patrols as well, particularly in those states where checkpoints are not allowed. In fact, agencies using frequent, low-manpower checkpoints should continue using saturation patrols, too.
Additionally, using special DUI testing and support officers can increase the efficiency of saturation patrols and ongoing DUI enforcement work. Example: The Costa Mesa (Calif.) Police Department s drunk driving teams function as backup for patrol officers. These teams consist of two-officer units working four nights a week from 2300 hrs 0300 hrs. They help patrol officers make more arrests by taking over testing, paper work and other time-consuming requirements of an impaired-driving stop.
For the Good of All
Remember, effective traffic enforcement leads to effective law enforcement. While conducting a low-manpower sobriety checkpoint in rural Beckley, W.Va., officers rescued a woman who was being abducted.
Every 32 minutes a person is murdered, but every 12 minutes a person dies in a traffic crash, 40 percent caused by drunk drivers. Visible, aggressive and efficient enforcement of impaired driving laws will make our roadways safer for everyone.
This project was supported by Grant No. 2005-DD-BX-K162 awarded by the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice. Points of view in this document are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
Funding for PAS, signage and other equipment is often available through grants from state highway safety offices. The Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users enacted in 2005 provides a substantial amount of funds to states for DUI enforcement. Agencies should pursue these funds to provide necessary equipment.
Carl J. McDonald, a 23-year law enforcement veteran, is MADD s National Law Enforcement Initiative Coordinator. Carl experienced firsthand the tragedy drunk drivers cause when an impaired driver killed his young daughter in 1998.
Janet Dewey-Kollen is a long-time traffic safety advocate, specializing in impaired driving, child/youth safety and occupant-protection issues.