There are lots of reasons to look forward to Labor Day: end-of-summer barbecues, the last chance to wear your favorite warm-weather whites, an extra day off of work. But this holiday weekend, you might think twice before enjoying a beer at your family cookout. Local law enforcement is doubling down on drunk driving this Labor Day, and that means sobriety checkpoints.
Advocates of sobriety checkpoints claim that they deter and catch drunk drivers. But in reality, checkpoints are an ineffective enforcement measure that intimidates responsible social drinkers.
It’s a problem across the country. Take Hamilton County, Indiana. In 2013, less than 4 percent of the county’s checkpoints yielded DUI arrests. In Colorado, more than 1,500 vehicles crawled through a single sobriety checkpoint this past May, yet police arrested a mere 1 percent of drivers on suspicion of drunk driving. Or consider West Virginia, where roughly 130,000 drivers sat through roadblocks between October 2010 and September 2011. These inspections yielded only 189 arrests, just 3.2 percent of the total statewide DUI arrests during that period.
Why are they so ineffective? For starters, sobriety checkpoints are extremely easy to avoid. Indeed, many states require law enforcement to publicly disclose the time and location of checkpoints well in advance. And even if this information wasn’t publicized, a driver can often spot the traffic snarls of a checkpoint roadblock from a mile away.
Technology has also played a part in helping drunk drivers evade sobriety checkpoints. Today, many GPS systems come equipped with a feature that alerts you to any sobriety checkpoints on your route, and a number of smartphone applications are now available to serve the same purpose (Yep, there’s an app for that). Drunk drivers can warn each other, too: All it takes is texting a friend a quick heads up, or a social media post alerting all of your followers.
Checkpoint advocates like to argue that even though they produce very few drunk driving arrests, checkpoints are effective in deterring intoxicated drivers from getting behind the wheel in the first place.
But this logic just doesn’t add up. You see, because checkpoints are so easy to avoid, we can’t discern which drunk drivers stayed off of the roads entirely, and which drunk drivers just took another route home. Highly visible checkpoints just deter responsible drinkers from having that single beer at holiday barbecues or ballgames before driving home.
If states really want to crack down on drunk driving, they should scrap sobriety checkpoints in favor of roving patrols — where police officers actively patrol to seek out drunk and dangerous drivers. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation, active roving patrols can be 10 times more effective than passive sobriety checkpoints. In addition to better targeting drunk drivers, roving patrols also tackle the risks posed by other dangerous driving behaviors — such as speeding or distracted driving. And they aren’t just more productive; roving patrols are far more cost-effective than the checkpoint system. Each roving patrol costs about $300, while a single sobriety checkpoint can cost between $8,000 and $10,000.
Instead, let’s use our tax dollars and our police officers more efficiently by utilizing roving patrols that keep drunk drivers — and other dangerous drivers — off our roads.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.