Checkpoints, MADD emotion doesn’t put brakes on DUI . . .by Sarah Longwell on Dec. 03, 2008, under Opinion
. . . responsible alcohol consumption does
Thanksgiving kicked off a season well known for its accompanying festivities.
Families and friends get together and chances are high that most adults will be celebrating with a beverage or two.
But just as most partygoers make it a point to look after each other at these holiday gatherings, local governments will be taking some extra precautions to keep our roads safe.
Unfortunately, these heightened traffic safety programs fall short of expectations year after year.
Alcohol-related fatalities have been reduced by more than 30 percent since 1982 – no thanks to one of the most popular traffic programs in the last decade (during which fatality numbers have completely leveled off).
It is a policy which all but 11 states still cling to despite its obvious reliance on emotion instead of effectiveness: sobriety checkpoints.
These roadblocks will be among the many long lines that thousands of Arizonans will find themselves waiting in this holiday season. But buried among the news stories about holiday shopping and the economy, plenty of articles will appear in local newspapers under headlines like this: “No drunk drivers caught at sobriety checkpoint.”
Such headlines appeared in newspapers across the country last holiday season. Countless counties also stopped hundreds of vehicles and made only one or two arrests.
Since these checkpoints are highly visible by design and publicized in advance, it’s almost surprising that they manage to make any arrests at all.
How can placing a group of officers at a single location and waiting for drunk drivers to come to them be the best approach to traffic safety improvement?
The allegiance to these programs by so many state governments can’t be explained by a lack of better options. Roving police patrols, or saturation patrols, are clearly more effective. They arrest up to 10 times as many drunk drivers as checkpoints by patrolling the highways and looking for dangerous drivers.
The problem with roadblocks is that they are far too easily avoided by the base of what’s left of America’s drunk driving problem: hard-core alcohol abusers.
National data consistently show that the average drunk driver involved in a fatal crash had a blood alcohol concentration of more than twice the legal limit. These are chronic drunk drivers, not someone who has had a glass of wine, or two, with Thanksgiving dinner.
Policymakers had good reason to give these checkpoint programs a chance. But the reality is that checkpoints aren’t further shrinking the much-diminished drunk driving problem.
With the growing financial challenges our country is now facing, why should we funnel limited resources away from measures that are proven to achieve the same goal more effectively?
With a dozen or more officers, special equipment and printed materials, roadblocks cost taxpayers a whopping average of about $8,000 each. A typical saturation patrol with two officers runs about $300.
Proponents are going to be working harder to justify the lack of return on these substantial investments of taxpayer money. But try not to be distracted by their emotional appeals. Checkpoint advocates, led by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, have a lot more in mind for these roadblocks than traffic safety.
MADD defends checkpoint programs so aggressively because it is dedicated to minimizing alcohol consumption, not simply ensuring it is consumed responsibly. This is why the group has publicly advocated putting ignition interlocks (in-car breath analysis devices) in every car as a safety feature, like seat belts.
Over the next several weeks, MADD’s campaigns will be dedicated to making sure that Americans feel sufficiently guilty about consuming any spiked eggnog whatsoever prior to driving.
No one is against taking extra steps to make the roads safer during the holidays. But there is little evidence to suggest that checkpoints are the smartest way to do that.
Now more than ever, it is important to make sure our resources are being spent effectively at the national and local level. It is difficult to exercise fiscal responsibility in the emotionally charged atmosphere that MADD and other anti-alcohol advocates have cultivated.
Be safe on the roads this holiday season – and always. But remember that the coming weeks are especially appropriate for re-examining our most misguided alcohol policies.
Prohibition was repealed 75 years ago on Dec. 5, reinstating the freedom of Americans to enjoy the beverage of their choice. Just in time for those holiday festivities.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute in Washington, D.C., an association of restaurants committed to the responsible serving of adult beverages.