Do Checkpoints Really Stop Drunk Drivers?

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I just read an article on Drudge Report which was taken from the Associated Press. In it, the journalist talks about how Twitter and Facebook are now being used to warn others of a DWI checkpoint. On the surface, this sounds wretched, right? Let’s say Joe is going home one Saturday night, sees a checkpoint and posts a status update or a tweet warning his friends and followers where said checkpoint is located. Then, any of his friends who are drinking know when to avoid the area if they’re driving home. On the surface, it sounds unsafe and as though Joe’s warning may keep his friends out of jail, but puts other drivers on the road at risk. That’s a fair point. But, let me give you a little personal experience here…

As a junior in college, I interned with the Missouri Division of Highwy Safety and MADD Missouri. I got to know law enforcement officers from all over the state and even got to be roadside for a few checkpoints. What surprised me when speaking to these traffic officers is that the point of a DWI checkpoint isn’t solely to catch drunk drivers. What?! You may be asking. That’s what I asked, too.

See, holding DWI checkpoints is actually not the most effective way to get drunk drivers off the road. Sure, they’ll catch a few drunk drivers in the first hour or so, but word quickly spreads through the community where the checkpoint is located. Next thing ya know, word of the checkpoint has spread through every alcohol serving establishment in the area. And, of course, then drunks take a different way home. Or, better yet, they limit their alcohol intake or find a sober ride.

But get this…the checkpoint actually starts well before the roadblock is ever set up. In fact, the local PD put notices in the newspapers leading up to the checkpoint. Some law enforcement officers even go into bars and clubs to tell management that they’ll have checkpoints out over the weekend. No specific details are given (duh!), but it’s all a good move to get the warning out. The bar owner then, in turn, tells the patrons, hopefully. Showing my age here, but my internship was in the days before social media, texting and even cell phones weren’t the American Express of the time. I.E., you sometimes DID leave home without it…and that is, if you even owned a cell.

The point of a checkpoint is to deter drunk drivers, not necessarily catch a whole ton. In fact, law enforcement knows that statistically, if they want to haul in drunk drivers off the streets, wolf packs are much more effective. Wolf packs, or saturation patrols as they’re known, means there are simply more cops out on the roads patrolling for those who are swerving. Law enforcement actually catch a lot more DWI offenders this way than with checkpoints. Why then do they do checkpoints?

Simply put, it keeps people on their toes. If an average citizen sees an article in the paper saying there will be checkpoints in the next week, they may choose to limit their drinking to a safe amount. Or they may decide to stay home. Or they may realize that law enforcement is serious about cracking down on DWI. Again, checkpoints DO catch some offenders and that’s good to get those people off the road. But the main purpose of the checkpoints is a deterrent for the entire community.

It has been several years since I’ve stood roadside while cops give suspected drunk drivers field sobriety tests, but I’ve gotta imagine these principles still hold true.

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