When it comes to police roadblocks designed to catch drunk drivers, the public is conflicted . On one hand, there are plenty of people who believe that any anti-drunk driving law enforcement practice that saves even one life is fully justifiable. On the other hand, many Americans consider a police roadblock a quasi-fascist police tactic: an unconstitutional violation of their legal right to travel without facing [what they consider to be] indiscriminate search and seizure. Guess which way the American Beverage Association (ABI) comes down on the issue.
In these politically correct times, you might think the ABI would support ANY anti-drunk driving initiative, no matter how draconian. Nope. On the cusp of the traditional Memorial Day drink-driving law enforcement crackdown, the restaurant trade association “dedicated to protecting the on-premise dining experience” voiced their vehement opposition to random roadblocks.
“These police anti-drunk driving roadblocks target responsible adults who drink legally and responsibly before driving,” prnounced spokesperson Sarah Longwell. “They are all too easily avoided by the repeat offenders and chronic abusers who make up the overwhelming majority of today's drunk driving problem."
The ABI's press release cites a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) study concluding that roving police patrols are almost three times more effective at apprehending drunk drivers than “random” roadblocks. In a telephone interview, Longwell said her organization’s anti-roadblock stance is more than a matter of stats. It reflects simple common sense.
“Which sounds more effective,” Longwell asked. “Putting cops on the streets and the highways who are trained to look for drunk and impaired drivers, or pulling them off the streets, making them stand at one place, and just check everybody who comes through to see if they may or may not be drinking.”
Longwell denies the suggestion that the ABI is trying to protect members whose customers may not drink due to possible police roadblocks– which would reduce the restaurant owners’ profits. She says her organizations’ “sober training certification program” proves that restaurants are doing their best to stop drunk driving.
“Our program teaches bartenders, waiters and waitress, the people on the ground, how to not over-serve, and how to spot people who are overly intoxicated and appear to be driving… A lot of it is about cutting off the service at a certain time or calling cabs, ensuring that they don’t get in the car if they’ve had too much.”
The ABI’s efforts to stem drunk driving at the source are to be commended, but their anti-roadblock arguments may be less compelling than they seem. Their press release quotes stats prepared with what can only be called fuzzy logic. For example: “The 11 states that do not operate roadblocks experienced 91 fewer alcohol-related fatalities collectively in 2005 compared to 2004.”
What’s more, TTAC could only find one recent NHTSA alcohol-related study: “Creating Impaired Driving General Deterrence: Eight Case Studies of Sustained, High-Visibility, Impaired-Driving Enforcement.” While the ABI may have crunched NHTSA’s numbers independently, the report does not conclude that roving patrols are three times more effective than roadblocks.
There’s also persuasive evidence to suggest that police roadblocks ARE successful at deterring drunk drivers. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report published in the December 2002 issue of Traffic Injury Prevention, police implemented “sobriety checkpoints” decrease alcohol-related car crashes by about 20 percent.
The CDC review was based on 23 “scientifically-sound” international studies. The results were roughly identical, regardless of whether or not police checkpoints were short-term “blitzes” or operated continuously over several years.
No matter how drunk drivers are apprehended, the ABI believes that not offenders are alike. Unlike zero tolerance crusaders like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Longwell’s organization lobbies for graduated penalties: ankle bracelets for hard core repeat offenders, less severe penalties for infrequent or less intoxicated drivers.
In this, the ABI is swimming against the tide. State laws against drunk driving are becoming increasingly severe. Many states (e.g. Kansas, Indiana and Georgia) have adopted “Habitual Violator Laws” that impose felony penalties for three DUI convictions, including the permanent loss of the violator’s legal right to drive and more limited prohibitions against voting or owning a firearm.
According to the Department of Justice, in 2005, police arrested nearly 1.4m drivers for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. In that same year, 16,885 people, some 39 percent of all traffic-related deaths, were killed in alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes. And a CDC report found “insufficient evidence” to recommend the use of designated driver programs.
All of which leaves us where we started, with police roadblocks aimed at preventing/stopping drunk drivers. While you can understand the ABI and civil-rights-minded citizens’ distaste for police roadblocks, the questions must still be asked: what have we got to lose?