Americans should buckle up and brace themselves for particularly heavy traffic this Memorial Day weekend.
According to estimates from AAA, more than 37 million vacationers will drive to a destination for the three-day break this year, the most in nearly a decade.
Unfortunately, crowded highways won’t be the only snag likely to slow down your drive home from a Memorial Day vacation or cookout: Delaware police are once again using sobriety checkpoints to try to catch drunk drivers.
While these checkpoints cause traffic jams and frustrate drivers, they rarely catch motorists who have had too much to drink before getting behind the wheel. It might seem counterintuitive, but sobriety checkpoints are actually a lousy way to crack down on drunk driving.
To understand the shortcomings of this enforcement method, consider the numbers. In April, 575 cars passed through a sobriety checkpoint in North Long Beach, Calif. Over the span of eight hours, law enforcement only caught two drivers under the influence of alcohol, less than 0.35 percent of the total cars that passed through the roadblock.
It’s a problem across the country. Police stopped and screened 120 vehicles during a Saturday night checkpoint in Frederick, Md., last month, yet, nabbed only a single drunk driver.
And in Illinois, a new analysis of statewide roadblocks published this month found “no clear indication” that sobriety checkpoints caused a drop in alcohol-related crashes.
Proponents of sobriety checkpoints like to claim these dismal arrest rates are evidence that checkpoints intimidate, and ultimately deter, drunk drivers.
However, there is no way to truly know whether a driver found a sober ride (or opted not to drink at all) because of the fear of being caught in a sobriety checkpoint, or simply took another route home. After all, checkpoints are highly visible by design and often publicized in advance — thus, extremely easy to avoid.
In fact, you’ve probably seen headlines in your local paper or read a Tweet from the police department warning residents of an upcoming sobriety checkpoint, disclosing precisely when and where the screening will take place.
But even if you weren’t already aware that police were administering a checkpoint, the traffic snares of a roadblock can often be spotted from a mile away. Those drivers concerned that they might have had one too many (or who simply don’t want to sit in traffic) are often able to make a quick U-Turn or take a different route around the checkpoint.
Technology is only making matters worse. Now, it’s easier than ever for a driver to warn hundreds of social-media followers about a checkpoint in a single post or Tweet, or to quickly text a friend a cautionary heads-up. There’s even a slew of smart-phone apps that automatically alert users to any checkpoints in the area.
Instead of trying to catch drunken motorists in the checkpoint traps they know how to avoid, police ought to utilize roving or saturation patrols, where officers actively seek out drunk and dangerous drivers.
Saturation patrols are more cost-effective than roadblocks. A single sobriety checkpoint can cost between $8,000 and $10,000, compared to just $300 for a far more productive roving patrol.
Case in point: Last year, a California traffic deputy single-handedly caught more than 100 drunk drivers while working a one-woman saturation patrol. For comparison, less-effective sobriety checkpoints can require a dozen officers.
In a comparative analysis, the Federal Bureau of Investigation found that saturation patrols are more effective than sobriety checkpoints at catching drunken drivers, explaining: “Typically, sobriety checkpoints do not yield a large volume of DUI arrests.”
Plus, in addition to better targeting drunken drivers, roving patrols also protect the public from other unsafe motorists, like those who are speeding, drowsy or distracted.
This Memorial Day weekend, Delaware police should avoid using ineffective and expensive sobriety checkpoints.
Instead, we should marshal limited resources to utilize sensible policing that does a better job keeping our roads safe.
Editor’s note: Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute.