- - Monday, July 4, 2016

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

A new report from AAA estimates that we had a record-breaking Fourth of July travel weekend.

But holiday revelry and jam-packed highways are rightly accompanied by stepped up law enforcement measures. And while getting stopped by a cop can put a real kink in your beach vacation, we all appreciate what police patrols do to keep us safe on the roadways.

That is, with the notable exception of sobriety checkpoints — those Soviet-style roadblocks in which any driver who wanders through is asked to stop and show their papers.

Putting aside the intrusive nature of these checkpoints (though it’s an awful lot to put aside), there’s the not insignificant fact that they don’t actually catch drunk drivers. Instead, sobriety roadblocks inconvenience people trying to get from here to there by creating an artificial traffic jam. The cops manning the checkpoint give people tickets who aren’t wearing their seat belts or have expired insurance — but seldom do they nab a dangerous drunk.

Consider: One recent checkpoint in California stopped almost 1,400 drivers but didn’t yield a single DWI arrest. Another in Ohio screened more than 450 drivers without making a single arrest. Yet another stopped about 100 vehicles, resulting in three minor citations not involving alcohol. Some precincts invest over $2,000 per checkpoint-facilitated DUI arrest — if the checkpoint yields any DUIs at all.

Why doesn’t this favored law enforcement tool show better results?

For one thing, it is extremely easy to avoid by lawbreakers who don’t see a problem with drinking excessively prior to driving.

Sobriety checkpoints are conspicuous enough that even impaired drivers can identify the flashing lights far enough in advance to make a legal U-turn and avoid police interaction. And social media technology has made it a breeze to figure out where a checkpoint is and how to go around it. This leaves responsible adults trapped in long lines, while any drunk with foresight and a smartphone avoids them.

What’s more maddening is that there is a cheaper and more effective alternative in roving patrols. Rather than paying a bunch of officers to stand in one place all night, these patrols are out on the highways scanning roads for signs of impaired behavior — not just drunken driving, but also drowsy, distracted, or speeding drivers. They typically cost $300 and can result in numerous arrests at the hands of a single police officer.

A single sobriety checkpoint, on the other hand, can cost thousands of dollars while requiring more hands on deck — some roadblocks require dozens of police officers at a time. Yet more police officers does not imply more arrests at a single checkpoint.

Ironically, proponents of the sobriety checkpoint point to the lack of drunken driving arrests as evidence that they deter those who’ve had too much to drink from getting behind the wheel in the first place.

It reminds me of the crazy person banging a drum on a busy street corner. When asked why he was doing it, the drummer claimed to be “keeping the giraffes away.” Confronted with the fact that there were no giraffes downtown, he proudly exclaimed, “See. It’s working!”

With a greater number of vehicles on the road today, the odds of getting into any sort of accident increases substantially. We need law enforcement to be on the lookout for all manner of dangerous behavior, not myopically focusing on drunken driving enforcement measures that cost millions and don’t keep drunks (or giraffes) at bay.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Company, a public affairs firm in Washington, D.C.

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