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A better way to catch the drunks

The Baltimore Sun

On one end of the Howard County Detention Center parking lot last week, the media spin machine was cranked up and whirling.

Checkpoint Strikeforce, a regional group with a name that could be a cable TV reality show, was holding a news conference to promote its campaign to deter drunken driving. It was timely, coming the week after the federal government announced that Maryland had collectively flunked its field sobriety test in 2006 - with a 17 percent increase in alcohol-related fatalities over 2005.

So there were real cops staging a fake sobriety checkpoint stop, putting a young man - chosen to represent the dastardly demographic of males age 18 to 34 - through the paces of a simulated driving-under-the-influence arrest. Considering that he was a stone-cold sober employee of a PR firm, the "arrested" guy did a pretty good job of playing a frightened drunk.

There were lots of television cameras out there, with broadcast reporters looking barely old enough to drive eagerly passing along the macho "you will get caught" warnings from an army of police brass. Later the camera crews would be led through the detention center's intake area, following the process that you would if you failed a sobriety test in Howard County. The event made for great visuals, but a more substantive story was across the parking lot.

There, Maryland State Police Superintendent Col. Terrence Sheridan chatted with me about sobriety checkpoints. He's a skeptic. Has been for a long time.

Before Gov. Martin O'Malley appointed him to lead the state police, Sheridan was Baltimore County's police chief for a decade. And Baltimore County, unlike many other local police departments, didn't do checkpoints. It was a stance that won little praise from such ardent proponents of checkpoints as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. But Sheridan preferred a different strategy known as "saturation patrols."

Under that strategy, police essentially flooded a geographic area identified as a DUI hot spot with officers looking specifically for typical drunken-driving behaviors - drifting over the center lane, tailgating, speeding. These patrols typically yield lots off arrests.

In his public remarks, Sheridan said nothing to throw cold water on the various checkpoint enthusiasts at the news conversation.

But during our conversation, Sheridan restated his continued support for the saturation patrol tactic. He said he has no immediate plans to shut down the checkpoints - for now - but indicated that the state police will be examining their results.

"There's a better way to do it, and I want to find it," he said.

Sheridan said the saturation patrols can be effective on the side and back roads where the traffic volumes are too low to justify a sobriety checkpoint. He noted that many of the most deadly alcohol-related crashes occur on winding rural roads where the young and inebriated challenge curves and frequently lose.

The drivers he especially wants to get off the road are the one-third of the 18,000 Maryland drivers who take alcohol-detection tests and register blood-alcohol levels of 0.16 percent or more, twice the 0.08 percent limit for drunken driving in all 50 states. (Maryland defines .07 as driving while impaired, a not-much-lesser charge.)

That 0.16-and-up crowd is a worthy target. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 0.16 was the median blood-alcohol level for drivers and motorcycle operators killed in alcohol-related fatalities last year. That means that these "super-drunks" - likely a small fraction of the inebriated population - account for half the deaths.

And that's the type of motorist the saturation patrols are looking for.

It's doubtful that Sheridan would scrap checkpoints as a statewide strategy. Nor does he have the power to dictate strategies to jurisdictions that are believers in checkpoints.

But checkpoints have been shown to produce few DUI arrests while requiring a large investment of police manpower in a single location. According to Checkpoint Strikeforce, 1,500 checkpoints in the region had resulted in 5,051 drunken-driving arrests. Sounds impressive until you do the math: About 3.3 arrests per checkpoint.

Proponents concede the low arrest numbers but say checkpoints are a public education tool that reaches hundreds of motorists with information for every one arrested.

My guess is that the state police will significantly pull back from that strategy and lean toward a strategy of more patrols and more arrests.

Why not? The checkpoint strategy may be entering a phase of diminishing returns.

For one thing, it depends heavily on media exposure. When they first started, they garnered plenty. But now it's old news. And the repeat drunken drivers - many of whom may be sloshed but not entirely stupid - have learned the type of locations police favor for checkpoints and have found alternate routes.

So why not alter the message and warn potential drunken drivers that there are saturation patrols on the street and that they could show up anywhere? Wouldn't it be a better use of manpower to drop the dog-and-pony shows and fight drunken driving one arrest at a time?

I'd like to know what the officers out on the highways think. My opinions on this don't count for all that much. Theirs do.

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