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Back to Archives | Back to July 2005 Contents 

Sobriety Checkpoints:
An Effective Tool to Reduce DWI Fatalities

By Mary Ann Viverette, Chief of Police, Gaithersburg, Maryland, and First Vice President, International Association of Chiefs of Police


ore than 17,000 people die and half a million are injured every year from an entirely preventable cause of death, alcohol-related crashes. That's one death every half hour. Research shows that the best ways to reduce these numbers are high-profile enforcement efforts, especially regularly conducted sobriety checkpoints. Recent studies found such checkpoints can cut the death toll by 20 percent.1

Why, then, aren't sobriety checkpoints used more often to reduce the staggering number of fatalities from DWI? The answer may be that because the DWI death toll has dropped considerably since the 1980s the general public's consensus seems to be that the problem is nearly solved.2 Meanwhile, the media for the most part have lost interest: stories about a loved one lost to a DWI are rarely seen these days; newspaper editors and television news producers must figure that story has already been told.      

Even to policy makers and law enforcement executives, sobriety checkpoints have lost their luster. In an era of tightened budgets, some may think sobriety checkpoints are too expensive, because they require overtime hours for officers, while others may feel the late-night operations are tiring to personnel and yield relatively few arrests.

These and other perceptions about sobriety checkpoints, which research shows3 are the most immediate method to drive down deaths and injuries from DWI, are simply wrong. For example, there is a popular notion that checkpoints require 12-15 officers; but research shows that checkpoints with three to five officers are safe and work just as well.4 Sobriety checkpoints also result in comparable arrest rates to DWI patrols per officer hour.

Yet considering that DWI remains one of the most commonly committed crimes, and that the hundreds of thousands of deaths and injuries could be prevented by more concerted enforcement efforts, preventing DWI should be one of the nation's top law enforcement priorities.

Deterrence Value
Sobriety checkpoints' most important value is deterrence. With just a few officers, a bit of publicity, and no inconvenience for motorists, regularly scheduled sobriety checkpoints have been shown to reduce the number of crashes and, ultimately, the number of tragedies, largely through deterrence.5 A little bit of publicity can go a long way. "My philosophy is, I want the media there; that's how the message gets out," said Don Bickel, director of the Marion County, Indiana, Traffic Safety Partnership, which operates out of the Marion County Prosecutor's Office. "If you have the checkpoint, everybody knows about it. It's a deterrent and it is valuable tool."

Sobriety checkpoints have been used for the last 25 years in the United States, withstanding several legal challenges. But in 10 states (Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming), legislatures have decided to ban sobriety checkpoints altogether, and one state chooses not to conduct them (Alaska). But in the 39 states that use them, they are a deterrent to DWI. As a result of new laws and increased law enforcement operations, from 1982 to 1997, alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the United States decreased about 2 percent each year, a 36 percent overall reduction.6 Still, for several years that number has remained flat. Several factors contributed to the 15-year decline in alcohol-related fatalities, including alcohol-safety legislation, increased penalties, and advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but sobriety checkpoints have remained a constant enforcement component of DWI prevention.

A recently published article by researchers at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), a nonprofit public health research institute, points out that police agencies are not using sobriety checkpoints often enough. The article, published in a recent issue of Traffic Injury Prevention, reported that while 37 states conduct sobriety checkpoints at least once or twice a year, only 11 states do them on a weekly basis.7 Prior research found that more frequent and better-publicized sobriety checkpoints could cut fatal DWI crashes by 20 percent, which translates into thousands of lives a year. An earlier PIRE study also looked at why sobriety checkpoints aren't used more frequently and examined commonly held assumptions about sobriety checkpoints: they are too costly, they use too many officers, they yield few arrests, and the public opposes them. None of this is true, according to the research, which determined that checkpoints are effective and cost-efficient.8

Evidence Supports Sobriety Checkpoints
There is a wealth of other evidence to support the use of sobriety checkpoints as a way to reduce alcohol-related deaths. In a two-year study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a statewide sobriety checkpoint program in New Mexico resulted in a 26 percent decline in alcohol-related fatalities.9 In New Jersey, sobriety checkpoints, along with educational programs, resulted in a 10-15 percent decrease in single-vehicle nighttime crashes.10 In Tennessee, NHTSA sponsored a program of highly publicized weekly checkpoints that resulted in a 20 percent reduction of alcohol-related fatalities that continued for 21 months after the program's end.11

Dispelling the notion that sobriety checkpoints are a drain on staffing, some agencies use as few as three to five officers for operations. Prior research found no difference in the effectiveness of checkpoints with smaller staffing levels compared with those using eight to 12 officers.12 Another study also indicated that checkpoint programs could yield considerable cost savings for police agencies as well as for taxpayers.13 The annual savings for a community of 100,000 licensed drivers is estimated to be $7.9 million: $3.1 million for fatalities avoided; $4.5 million for nonfatal injuries avoided; and $333,000 for property damage avoided.14

What's even more compelling is that for every dollar spent on a sobriety checkpoint program, a community can expect to save more than six dollars.15 And the U.S. Department of Transportation and the NHTSA provide grants to pay for officer overtime and agency equipment.

Opposition to Sobriety Checkpoints
Detractors of sobriety checkpoints include the American Beverage Institute (ABI) and some bar and restaurant associations. These groups contend that sobriety checkpoints just scare away law-abiding, paying customers, because these people will choose not to drink at all. They say that checkpoints are unfair because they target the innocent along with the guilty. Such notions are unfounded, as evidenced by the fact that there is overwhelming public support for sobriety checkpoints, according to recent surveys.16 The vast majority of motorists understand that the minor inconvenience of stopping at a sobriety checkpoint, which should take only about as long as stopping at a red light of 30 seconds or less, is an effective way to reduce the risk of a DWI crash or fatality. Most drivers know they are not at risk of arrest because they are not driving impaired. At the same time, they understand that they are at risk of becoming the victim of a DWI.

Critics also contend increased sobriety checkpoints ignore the root cause of today's impaired driving problem, hardcore abusers. But the typical DWI is a first-time offender. Sobriety checkpoints are effective for both first-time offenders and hardcore abusers, who may repeatedly escape police detection by routine traffic patrols.

Another reason some jurisdictions may opt out of checkpoints is the belief by some that the public doesn't support such operations. Yet 88 percent of respondents to a written survey in Tennessee said they approved of using checkpoints to prevent drunken driving.17

In Indiana, the Governor's Council on Impaired and Dangerous Driving, which provides the leadership and training for checkpoints, helped establish the Marion County Traffic Safety Partnership that involves police representatives, citizens, and business representatives. "We've received a lot of positive comments; they mostly appreciate you out there," said Bickel, who organizes regular checkpoints between six law enforcement agencies in the Marion County. "Business people come out and offer officers coffee and they tell officers what's occurring in the neighborhood. It's very proactive."

While some officers feel that sobriety checkpoint duty results in few arrests and isn't very productive, it can play a vital role in protecting public safety. Impaired driving causes more injuries, deaths, and property damage in most communities than illegal drugs, assaults, and robberies. Thus, sobriety checkpoints, as an integral part of all enforcement efforts, proactively deter people from driving impaired. Most individuals who drive under the influence are not incorrigible criminals, or even hardened alcoholics, according to two recent studies, 18, which means there is a high likelihood they will respond to the deterrent effect of high-profile enforcement efforts such as sobriety checkpoints.

Passive Alcohol Sensors
Technology can help police officials make sobriety checkpoints more effective and efficient. Researchers from PIRE and IIHS19 have found that the use of passive alcohol sensors (PAS), tiny devices that can be installed in flashlights that scan the air around a driver to detect alcohol, can both reduce the workload at a sobriety checkpoint and increase the detection of DWI offenders.

Studies indicate officers at checkpoints using PAS cited more DWI offenders per duty hour than the same officers did during dedicated traffic patrol periods. PAS detect about twice as many impaired drivers at checkpoints as even the best officer observations.20 This is significant because officers only have a few seconds at checkpoints to decide whether or not a driver should be investigated further.

Here's how the PAS works: the device contains a sensor that examines the subject's exhaled breath through a fuel cell. Within seconds, the presence and approximate amount of alcohol is registered on a color-coded display. These sensors can measure alcohol in enclosed areas such as vehicles, aircraft, trains, and rooms.

Several studies conducted by IIHS found that without using the PAS, officers at checkpoints miss nearly half of the drivers who are over the legal limit during a 30-second interview.21 By decreasing the amount of time needed to check each driver, these devices can reduce the number of officers needed to staff a checkpoint.

With PAS, a small group of five to seven officers on traffic patrol duty can converge on a preset site and conduct a minicheckpoint, returning to their standard patrol duties within designated time. Dubbed a "PASpoint" operation by researchers at PIRE, this system could become one of the standard DWI enforcement techniques regularly used within a department's jurisdiction. This illustrates that sobriety checkpoints need not be massive affairs, involving as many as 30 or 40 officers and many police vehicles, of the kind that may be common in large jurisdictions that only employ checkpoints around holidays. Smaller communities can mount checkpoints with fewer than six officers who can deter impaired drivers and have the opportunity to apprehend other criminal offenders.

Detecting Other Crimes     
There's another advantage of sobriety checkpoints: they can detect other crimes besides impaired driving. Policies on enforcement of other offenses at sobriety checkpoints differ by state and locality, but checkpoints can deter serious crimes. In Beckley, West Virginia, officers were about to shut down their minicheckpoint when they observed a woman driver who was being abducted by a kidnapper. The officers arrested the man, who apparently intended to rape and kill her.

Support for Sobriety Checkpoints
MADD is celebrating its 25th anniversary in 2005 and has made the increased use of sobriety checkpoints one of its top public awareness priorities. A little over a year ago, MADD sponsored the 2004 Law Enforcement Leadership Summit with executive-level representatives from more than 50 law enforcement partners across the country. They discussed obstacles to DWI enforcement efforts and reviewed research on such operations, and they came to the conclusion that regularly scheduled, well-publicized sobriety checkpoints were essential to reduce impaired driving.

Sobriety checkpoints can be done efficiently and effectively while reducing the overall incidence of DWI crashes and fatalities in a particular community. Research supports ongoing sobriety checkpoint programs for local law enforcement agencies as well as large, high-visibility media campaigns to make the public aware of such programs. Through the combination of public awareness, community support, and stepped-up enforcement efforts in the form of sobriety checkpoints, police can help reduce the unconscionably high annual toll of 17,000 dead and a half-million injured.   ■


1 R. A. Shults, et al., "Reviews of Evidence Regarding Interventions to Reduce Alcohol-Impaired Driving," American Journal of Preventive Medicine 21 (2001): 66-88.
2) J. C. Fell, "Keeping Us on Track: A National Program to Reduce Impaired Driving in the United States," Journal of Substance Use, vol. 6, no. 4 (2001): 258-268; and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) 2003 (2004), (www.nhtsa.dot.gov).
3 J. C. Fell, J. H. Lacey, and R. B. Voas, "Sobriety Checkpoints: Evidence of Effectiveness Is Strong, but Use Is Limited," Traffic Injury Prevention 5 (2004): 220-227.
4 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Experimental Evaluation of Sobriety Checkpoint Programs, by J. W. Stuster and M. A. Blowers (1995).
5 Fell, Lacey, and Voas, "Sobriety Checkpoints."
6 Fell, "Keeping Us on Track"; and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) 2003.
7 J. C. Fell, S. A. Ferguson, A. F. Williams, and M. Fields, "Why Are Sobriety Checkpoints Not Widely Adopted as an Enforcement Strategy in the United States?" Accident Analysis and Prevention, vol. 35, no. 6 (2003): 897-902.
8 H. L. Ross, "Reasons for Nonuse of Sobriety Checkpoints," Police Chief 59 (1992): 58-63; and Fell, Lacey, and Voas, "Sobriety Checkpoints."
9 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Evaluation of New Mexico's Anti-DWI Efforts, by J. H. Lacey and R. K. Jones (February 2000).
10 D. Levy, D. Shea, and P. Asch, "Traffic Safety Effects of Sobriety Checkpoints and Other Local DWI Programs in New Jersey," American Journal of Public Health 79 (1988): 291-293; and Levy, Asch, and Shea, "An Assessment of County Programs to Reduce Driving while Intoxicated," Health Education Research 5 (1990): 247-255.
11 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Checkpoint Tennessee: Tennessee's Statewide Sobriety Checkpoint Program, by J. Lacey, R. Jones, and R. Smith (1999).
12 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Experimental Evaluation of Sobriety Checkpoint Programs; and R. B. Voas, H. D. Holder, and P. J. Gruenewald, "The Effect of Drinking and Driving Interventions on Alcohol-Involved Traffic Crashes within a Comprehensive Community Trial," Addiction 92 (1997): S221-S236.
13 T. R. Miller, M. Galbraith, and B. Lawrence, "Costs and Benefits of a Community Sobriety Checkpoint Program," Journal of Studies on Alcohol, vol. 59, no. 4, 465-468.
14 Miller, Galbraith, and Lawrence, "Costs and Benefits."
15 Miller, Galbraith, and Lawrence, "Costs and Benefits."
16 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, National Survey of Drinking and Driving Attitudes and Behavior: 2001, Volume I: Summary Report, by D. Royal (2003).
17 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Checkpoint Tennessee.
18 S. P. Baker, E. R. Braver, L. H. Chen, and A. F. Williams, "Drinking Histories of Fatally Injured Drivers," Injury Prevention 8 (2002): 221-226; and A. McCartt and A. F. Williams, "Characteristics of Fatally Injured Drivers with High Blood Alcohol Concentrations (BACs)," in Proceedings of the 17th International Conference on Alcohol, Drugs & Traffic Safety, edited by Oliver, Williams, and Clayton (Glasgow, Scotland: 2004).
19 S. A. Ferguson, "Comments on Identification of Alcohol Involvement on Initial Interview," Transportation Research E-Circular, E-C-020, E11-E12, 2000, (http://gulliver.trb.org/publications/circulars/ec020.pdf) (February 2004); and S. A. Ferguson, J. K. Wells, and A. K. Lund, "The Role of Passive Alcohol Sensors in Detecting Alcohol-Impaired Drivers at Sobriety Checkpoints," Alcohol, Drugs, and Driving 11 (1995): 23-30.
20 J. K. Wells, et al., "Drinking Drivers Missed at Sobriety Checkpoints," Journal of Studies on Alcohol, vol. 58, no. 5 (1997): 513-517.
21 S. A. Ferguson, "Comments on Identification of Alcohol Involvement on Initial Interview"; Ferguson, Wells, and Lund, "The Role of Passive Alcohol Sensors"; M. Fields and A. R. Henricko, "Passive Alcohol Sensors: Constitutional Implications," The Prosecutor, vol. 20, no. 1 (1986): 45-50; I. S. Jones and A. K. Lund, "Detection of Alcohol-Impaired Drivers Using Passive Alcohol Sensor," Journal of Police Science and Administration, vol. 145, no. 2 (1985): 153-160; and Wells, et al., "Drinking Drivers Missed at Sobriety Checkpoints."


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From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 7, July 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.








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