Sobriety Checkpoints Take the Enforcement Message to the Streets

By Debbie Hersman

Sobriety checkpoint
Second Lt. Joseph Flynn of the Fairfax County Police Dept and Kenneth Bragg, and Jana Price from NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety.

“Good evening sir, we are doing a sobriety checkpoint this evening. May I see your license?’ asks the officer as the driver rolls down his window. It’s 2:00 a.m. on Sunday morning and I am observing a sobriety checkpoint on a well-traveled roadway in Fairfax County, Virginia. The officer and the driver exchange a few words before the officer hands the driver a piece of paper, and thanks him for his time. The driver pulls away with a pamphlet that explains that he has just participated in a sobriety checkpoint conducted by the Fairfax County Virginia Police Department. Printed on the pamphlet in bold letters is the FCPD checkpoint motto, Every week. Everywhere.

Fairfax County has chosen to do regular checkpoints for a good reason: well-implemented and publicized sobriety checkpoint programs have been shown to reduce alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes by about 20 percent. At a time when nearly 10,000 people in the United States are killed annually in crashes involving impaired drivers, we need to focus on solutions we know will work.

In May the NTSB released a report outlining steps that will move us toward the elimination of alcohol impaired driving. The NTSB report called for stronger laws, swifter enforcement, and improved technologies to address impaired driving. One of the recommendations in that report calls on states to conduct high-visibility enforcement efforts such as sobriety checkpoints, and to increase the success of their checkpoints by using flashlight-based sensors that can detect alcohol vapor in the vicinity of the driver. The noninvasive sensors have been shown to increase detection of impaired drivers during the brief checkpoint stops.

Sobriety checkpoints are effective because they increase drivers’ perception of the presence of law enforcement and heighten a driver’s awareness that they will be caught if they choose to drive impaired. They incorporate well-publicized media campaigns, enforcement efforts, and swift and certain penalties for drivers arrested for DWI. Research has shown that communities that conduct regular checkpoints dramatically reduce the proportions of drivers on their roads with impairing blood alcohol levels.

Today in the United States, on average, every hour one person is killed in a crash involving an alcohol-impaired driver and 20 more people are injured. In Fairfax County at the sobriety checkpoint this weekend, during the two hour period that it was conducted, two drivers were arrested for driving while intoxicated. Two possible tragedies were averted, and countless other drivers were made aware of Fairfax County’s commitment to keeping impaired drivers off the road.

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