There are better ways to fight drunken driving - East Valley Tribune: Opinion

There are better ways to fight drunken driving

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Posted: Friday, May 22, 2009 10:23 am | Updated: 1:41 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

Sarah Longwell: When most of us think of Memorial Day, we think of long weekends with our family, trips to the shore, and barbeques in the backyard. These days, however, a couple of beers with your macaroni salad could get you in serious trouble. That’s because over Memorial Day, sobriety checkpoints will be as ubiquitous as burnt hot dogs on the grill. 

When most of us think of Memorial Day, we think of long weekends with our family, trips to the shore, and barbeques in the backyard. These days, however, a couple of beers with your macaroni salad could get you in serious trouble. That’s because over Memorial Day, sobriety checkpoints will be as ubiquitous as burnt hot dogs on the grill.

“Checkpoints,” you say? “Like they had at the Berlin Wall?” Not exactly. That one was fixed, whereas these are entirely random. The police will set up roadblocks on public streets at which they will indiscriminately stop drivers, shine flashlights in their faces and assess their level of sobriety.

However, they will no longer simply be checking to ensure that drivers are below the legal limit of .08 percent blood alcohol concentration. Many law enforcement agencies have adopted the notion favored by the Ohio State Highway Patrol: “There is no absolute ‘legal limit’ except ‘zero.’” Not drunk driving, but any drinking and driving could be enough for an arrest.

The problem with such policy is that it doesn’t target the high-BAC drivers who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Instead it targets you – the outdoor-grilling, family-corralling, upright citizen who drinks moderately and responsibly before driving.

The deeply frustrating thing about these checkpoints is that there is a more effective, less intrusive alternative. A Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official testified in that state’s Supreme Court that roving police patrols catch 10 times as many drunk drivers as roadblocks. That’s because they are designed to find and pull over drivers who are truly impaired and thus a real hazard to themselves and others on the road. Checkpoints, by contrast, simply pick up whoever wanders through, even if they are well below the legal limit of .08 percent or haven’t been drinking at all.

Meanwhile, because these roadblocks are highly visible by design and publicized in advance they are all-too-frequently avoided by the chronic drunk drivers, who cause the vast majority of alcohol-related fatalities. Moreover, in today’s technologically advanced world, people can simply text their friends alerting them to the location of a checkpoint and the iPhone even has an application called Trapster that tells motorists where checkpoints are set up so that they can go around them.

The problem is that, despite the evidence that roadblocks don’t catch drunk drivers, the federal government is “bribing” local municipalities with extra funds to keep checkpoints in business. Apparently, the federal government would rather look like it’s doing something to curb drunk driving than put their efforts into tactics that, though less visible, actually catch drunks. Your tax dollars at work.

Funding for roadblocks and increased pressure by federal authorities to promote “zero tolerance” policies has been ongoing for some time now. The result? Reductions in alcohol-related fatalities have stalled over the past several years. The shift away from focused attempts to catch drunk drivers to broader policies that target everyone who drinks and drives has yielded little result and caused a great deal of unnecessary trouble for many innocent citizens.

Moreover, statistics show that talking on a hands-free cell phone, driving while drowsy, and traveling a mere 7 mph above the speed limit are all riskier than driving with a BAC level of .08 percent. And checkpoints don’t stop any of those hazardous behaviors. Roving patrols, on the other hand, focus on getting all types of dangerous drivers off the road, whether they be speeding, drunk, or trying to eat sushi with chopsticks.

The fact is that enjoying a drink and then driving home is both safe and legal. On the other hand, truly “drunk” driving is a deadly problem -- one that has been reduced to what Mothers Against Drunk Driving calls “hard core of alcoholics who do not respond to public appeal.”

So this Memorial Day weekend, let’s hope for fewer checkpoints stopping responsible adults who enjoyed a beer at a backyard cookout and more roving patrol units out on the roads looking for negligent drivers of all kinds. This is an opportunity to rely upon targeted enforcement. As much as we should bristle at the thought of intrusive roadblocks, we ought to be incensed that police forces are putting too much of their time and resources into largely symbolic approaches instead of solutions that work.

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.

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