Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Sobriety Checkpoints: A Much-Needed Tactic in the War Against Drunk Driving

It seems the time has come for legislators to realize that ignition interlock devices can be used to save lives, health and property from drunk drivers. Several states have now passed legislation requiring the devices to be used for various categories of DUI offenders. That's terrific. Some drunks will be kept from killing somebody because of these laws.

But ignition interlocks are not enough.

As a lawyer who has defended scores of DUI criminals recently told me, "Denny, these guys will get around interlocks in all kinds of ways. They'll use second cars, vehicles of friends and family, even rental cars obtained by their girlfriends or their own fake IDs. No, keeping drunks off the road will take all kinds of measures."

One of the most important of those measures, we agreed, is the use of sobriety checkpoints -- a simple, cost-effective and very successful tactic in the war against drunk driving. At such checkpoints police stop the vehicles in a determined sequence to check for possible impaired drivers. An inconvenience for most of us? To be sure. But it's more than worth it to save innocent citizens (and, for that matter, the drunks and hopheads themselves) from the various catastrophes resulting from the accidents impaired drivers invariably cause. This is why the Supreme Court ruled (Michigan v. Sitz) that sobriety checkpoints are clearly constitutional since the compelling state interest in saving lives trumps whatever inconvenience is involved.

And with proper support from law enforcement, media, churches, civic groups and businesses, the life-saving effect of sobriety checkpoints can be communicated to the general public, thus reducing that "inconvenience factor" dramatically.

Foremost in that educational campaign should be the fact that sobriety checkpoints not only pull over some drunk drivers in that particular event but, more important, they are an effective deterrent for the future. It's not just about immediate apprehension but about intensifying the fear of a DUI arrest. And that works. Several dependable studies have shown that sobriety checkpoints reduce alcohol-related crashes and fatalities by 20%. Wow.

So why, with this evidence that sobriety checkpoints are a key part in saving lives and reducing the number of devastating injuries created by DUI accidents, do 10 states still prohibit them? It can't be constitutional issues. That's been decided by the Supreme Court.

So it can only be due to 1) an irresponsible ignorance of what DUI creates. But then how can a state legislator honestly deny that he or she has already heard such frightening facts as:

* 15-18,000 people are killed annually in alcohol-related traffic crashes.
* That's about 40% of all traffic fatalities.
* On average, somebody is killed by a drunk driver every 39 minutes.

2) The only other reason legislators could fail to allow sobriety checkpoints? A heartless lack of concern for the physical wreckage and heartbreak being regularly caused by the dangerous criminals who drive drunk or stoned.

And yes, I add to this, the heartless concern displayed by lenient prosecutors and judges...and by newspaper editors and other journalists who seem ever eager to report the sordid details of DUI crashes but who do not bother with educating the public about basic steps required to seriously reduce the number of those tragedies.

Citizens of the states that do not allow sobriety checkpoints should be ashamed and alarmed enough to try and persuade their state congressmen and senators to redress this long overdue wrong. Those states are Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. (Note: you can use this page from the MADD web site to contact your representatives.)

And the rest of us? We too can contact our political representatives and ask them to pursue with ever greater diligence solutions to the calamities caused by drunk driving. And that includes a more frequent use of sobriety checkpoints.