Better ways exist to reduce DUIs

Rep. Rick Becker


Prohibition of sobriety checkpoints in HB1442 passed the State House and will soon be heard in the Senate. Some are opposing elimination of sobriety checkpoints, usually saying, “We need to leave this tool in the toolbox for law enforcement.” That worn-out phrase is not applicable here, and I’ll explain why.

Sobriety checkpoints need to be compared to other, better tools in law enforcement’s toolbox; namely directed patrols such as roving saturation patrols. Sobriety checkpoints require a large presence with numerous officers tied up for many hours. The checkpoint location must be advertised a week in advance, and drivers must be allowed to turn around as they approach the checkpoint. Roving saturation patrols (RSP), on the other hand, send several patrol cars out to target areas, looking for signs of driver impairment. Law enforcement can choose if they want to advertise the RSPs.

There are two components to law enforcement strategy to curb drunk driving; apprehension and deterrence. With regard to apprehension, it has long been known that sobriety checkpoints fail miserably. The FBI sent out a bulletin in 2003 confirming that checkpoints are inferior to RSPs in apprehending drunk drivers. Several studies corroborate this, including a study showing that a whopping 62% of drivers with a blood alcohol above the legal limit pass through checkpoints undetected. Even advocates for checkpoints acknowledge that they have very little value in apprehension. They instead point to deterrence as the primary value. There are two problems with this. The first is that several studies have proven that deterrence occurs only if checkpoints are performed frequently and are advertised extensively, but in North Dakota they are performed very infrequently. For example, Cass County conducted only one checkpoint in 2017, and Fargo has not conducted a checkpoint since 2014. Statewide, the Highway Patrol conducted only 17 checkpoints over the last two years. This isn’t nearly frequently enough to have an actual deterrent effect. The other problem with the deterrent claim is that it is being compared to doing nothing. No studies have shown that the checkpoint deterrent effect is better than an advertised RSP deterrent effect. Common sense tells us that letting the public know there are increased directed patrols somewhere out in the city looking for drunk drivers will have far greater deterrence than letting the public know there will be a checkpoint at a specific address on a specific date.

The final issue is use of resources. Officers’ time is valuable. Standing around at a checkpoint is not a good use of time. Consider that our own statistics show 21% of drivers stopped with RSPs are issued a DUI, but less than 2% of drivers stopped at a checkpoint are issued a DUI.

There is a tendency to cite various drunk driving statistics and then say, “We need every tool in the toolbox.” Given the data above, when someone says, “What about the drunk driver that a checkpoint takes off the roads?”, I respond by saying, “For every drunk driver taken off the road with a checkpoint, there are two or three drunk drivers left on the road whenever law enforcement resources are put into a checkpoint instead of a saturation patrol.”

Advocating to keep sobriety checkpoints is to ignore the facts, and to advocate for a policy that leaves drunk drivers on the road, leaving North Dakotans at greater risk of becoming victim to a drunk driver.