Impaired Driving Roadblocks

The headline was hard to ignore: "California Puts the Brakes on Impaired Driving; More than 310 Agencies Take Part in Sobriety Checks in December." And of course the goal was laudable. Preventing drunk or otherwise impaired drivers from taking innocent lives is worth some time, inconvenience, and perhaps even a little kink in our constitutional rights. But just as the enforcement of drunk drivers has been getting stiffer and just as the establishment of "sobriety checkpoints" has become more frequent, some are claiming that such roadblocks are ineffective and target the wrong people.

"The nation is on the wrong track in its efforts to combat drunk driving. PR campaigns and roadblocks -- the centerpiece of the nation's war on drunk driving -- harass and intimidate responsible adults while failing to target truly drunk drivers," so said several traffic safety experts cited in a new report by the American Beverage Institute (ABI), a restaurant trade association that seeks the responsible consumption of "adult beverages."

According to ABI, instead of prompting enforcement that goes after the seriously drunk driver with extremely high blood alcohol content, Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continue to promote the use of roadblocks that "harass responsible adults who drive after drinking adult beverages in moderation." Further, the ABI asserts the MADD/NHTSA strategy that uses checkpoints as a key weapon against impaired driving isn't working.

Statistics might back up the lobbying group in its claim. For nearly a decade and a half, the anti-impairment forces seemed to be gaining serious ground in the war against drunken driving, but at some point in the mid-1990's, the progress stopped and then took a turn for the worse. Whether the increase in sobriety checkpoints at the expense of other forms of enforcement contributed to the reversal is an open question, but it is a question worth asking.

The point is not to ignore the problem of impaired driving. It is a very real one that costs lives each and every day. The point is: how can limited law enforcement resources be best used to combat this serious public health problem? Critics of sobriety checkpoints say they are effective at raising public awareness of the issue of impaired driving, and they might even prevent some social drinkers from having a drink or two (or three) and then getting behind the wheel, but they won't keep the serious drinker from swigging way to much alcohol and then attempting to drive. And the big-time drinkers, some experts will tell you, are the ones really behind the alarming rise in impaired driving traffic deaths.

"Alcohol-related occupant fatalities [are] up a total of three percent, and it's all coming out of the high-BAC (blood alcohol content) [drivers]," Dr. Jeffrey Michael, Director of NHTSA's Impaired Driving and Occupant Protection Division has been quoted as saying. "Clearly, the implication here is that the usual stuff isn't working. We did something right back in the late 80s, early 90s, and we're not managing to do that now."

Instead of establishing checkpoints that use a number of patrolmen, some safety experts advocate a return to more conventional highway patrols in which wide-ranging officers stay on the lookout for seriously impaired drivers in a much broader sweep through communities. While no one is advocating driving after drinking -- and remember even a few social drinks can seriously impede your ability to control a vehicle properly -- there is some honest disagreement on how best to keep dangerous drivers off the road.

Driving Today Managing Editor Jack R. Nerad frequently writes and lectures about impaired driving.