State, county officials are targeting DUI cases as holiday weekend begins

The Baltimore Sun

The driver of a Ford Escape slowly moved his vehicle toward three Howard County police officers who were waiting at a sobriety checkpoint. The man stepped out of the car with the hope that his drunken condition would go unnoticed. Anxiously standing on the roadside, he was told by the officers to follow a moving pen with his eyes, walk in a straight line and stand on one leg.

He was doing fine until a failed Breathalyzer test sent him in handcuffs to the booking center at the Howard County Detention Center in Jessup for driving under the influence of alcohol. Fortunately for him, the man was an actor, and the checkpoint Wednesday morning was a staged event arranged to raise awareness of drunken driving, a growing danger in Maryland.

State and county police used the dramatized checkpoint and intimidating setting of the Howard County Detention Center to begin their heightened effort to combat drunken driving during the Labor Day weekend.

"The reality is, this facility - and others around the state like it - is where we intend to put our state's drunks," said Vernon F. Betkey Jr., chief of the Maryland Highway Safety Office. "The message for those who plan to drive drunk: You'll be arrested, and the consequences will be severe."

Beginning today, Howard County police will place as many as 10 more patrol officers on county roads and set up a sobriety checkpoint at a place with a historically high prevalence of alcohol-related accidents, said Police Chief William J. McMahon.

County police generally arrange six checkpoints each year. This weekend's campaign is being waged because Labor Day is the third-deadliest holiday for drunken-driving fatalities, behind July Fourth and Thanksgiving, according to the National Safety Council.

"We know that on Labor Day, there's lots of barbecues, lots of parties, lots of events," McMahon said. "The prime reason for me [to create a sobriety checkpoint] is to remove drunk drivers. The secondary - but almost primary - reason is to get the word out, make sure people know we'll be out there."

Last year, county police made 1,233 DUI arrests, the most in at least five years. This year, they have made 883 DUI arrests, said Sherry Llewellyn, a police spokeswoman.

Although more drunken drivers might be arrested if police officers were spread throughout the county instead of being at one spot, checkpoints are the most effective prevention method, McMahon said.

In addition to removing drunken drivers from county roads, police say they hope that each driver who is tested for alcohol or sees the checkpoints will spread the word about the police presence.

"If you screen 800 cars, almost always each person in that car tells two or three other people what police are doing. You reach so many people with one checkpoint," said retired Lt. Tim Branning, the Howard County police community traffic safety program coordinator.

The checkpoints complement recently launched national and state advertising campaigns to deter drunken driving. The state has spent more than $500,000 on 15,000 radio ads that target men ages 21 to 35, who are often responsible for deadly drunken-driving collisions but have been resistant to most public service announcements, said Kurt Gregory Erikson, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Regional Alcohol Program.

Erikson's organization, which received state funding to create the ads, polled 700 drivers in the state about their attitudes and behavior toward drunken driving. About 75 percent of those polled said their fear of harming others is much greater than their concern about their own well-being when they decide to drive while impaired, Erikson said.

In Maryland last year, 193 fatalities occurred in crashes involving at least one driver with a blood alcohol content of 0.08 percent or more, 28 more than in 2005, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics released last week.

Since 2005 in Howard County, 24 traffic fatalities, nearly half the total, were alcohol-related, according to the NHTSA and county police statistics.

Nationwide, the 13,582 traffic fatalities recorded in 2005 were the most since 1993.

"Where is the public outcry over these needless deaths?" Col. Terrence B. Sheridan, head of the state police, said at Wednesday's news conference. "It is clear that too many people ignore our pleas to not drink and drive."

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