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Sobriety checkpoints: Catching the worst drunk driving offenders?

Neil Bartlett

Chances are if you’re driving home from a bar on a Saturday night, you’ve encountered a sobriety checkpoint. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the U.S., 30 people die every day in motor crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. 

Sobriety checkpointBut are sobriety checkpoints effective in the fight against drunk driving?

Jim Fell, senior research scientist at the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation at its Alcohol, Policy and Safety Research Center in Calverton, Md, has authored more than 100 articles on various aspects of drinking and driving and driver safety and is an authority on sobriety checkpoints. asked Fell to explain how sobriety (DUI) checkpoints work, whether they’re effective in the fight against drunk driving and how getting arrested at one may affect your car insurance rates.

Sobriety checkpoints and you

What exactly is a sobriety checkpoint?

It’s when police stop all vehicles to see if drivers are impaired from alcohol or other drug use. Checkpoints are held at predetermined, fixed locations. Signs are posted as you approach the checkpoint stating there’s one ahead. 

A sobriety checkpoint has to be operated in a consistent manner. You can’t be singled out because of how you look or what kind of car you’re driving. Some checkpoints will stop every driver. Others will check every third or fourth driver.

In urban areas, the police don’t want to hold up traffic, so sometimes there will be more than one checkpoint lane.

If you don’t appear impaired, you’ll be waived on. If you do (appear impaired), you’ll be detained and either released or arrested.

The Supreme Court has ruled that checkpoints are constitutional and that drivers shouldn’t be surprised by them. Once you drive into a checkpoint zone, your chances of being checked for alcohol use are very good. If you make a U-turn and it’s illegal, the police will pursue you.

If you’re caught driving under the influence at a checkpoint, what kind of impact will it have on your driving record and your car insurance rates?

If you’re caught and convicted, typically you lose your license. The conviction will go on your driving record, you’ll pay fines, and you’ll attend classes about drinking and driving. You might be required to have an ignition interlock device put on your car. That means every time you get behind the wheel, your blood alcohol content will be measured. If you’re over the interlock blood alcohol content (BAC) limit of 0.02 or 0.03, your car won’t start.

If you’re a repeat offender, you’re looking at a longer license suspension, typically one year.. You may have to go into an extended alcohol treatment program. The interlock will be on your car longer. You may need to wear a SCRAM (Secure Continuous Remote Alcohol Monitor) alcohol monitoring bracelet on your ankle.

You should expect your car insurance rates to soar, especially if you’re a young driver. An individual convicted of drunken driving is considered a high-risk driver by insurance companies.

What power do police have at these checkpoints?

Typically they’ll come to your window and ask you if you’ve had anything to drink recently or ask how many drinks you’ve had. They’ll ask for your driver’s license, registration and proof of insurance. They (may) ask you to perform tasks that involve dexterity.

The police officer must have reasonable suspicion — evidence that the driver is drunk — before they ask that you come out of your vehicle. If that occurs, they’ll give you three field sobriety tests. Some will use a portable breath tester that reveals your blood alcohol content. If your level is at 0.08 or higher — the standard in all states and the District of Columbia — you’ll be taken to the police station where you’ll be given an evidential test and charged with driving under the influence.

How frequent and common are these checkpoints?

DUI checkpoints are legal in 38 states and the District of Columbia. In 12 states they’re either illegal or prohibited. In 18 states they’re conducted at some location at least weekly.

How effective are they?

The research is very strong that they’re effective. Several studies show that on average, sobriety checkpoints reduce alcohol-related crashes and fatal crashes by 10 percent to 20 percent.

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