The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently kicked off its annual “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign, a 20-day enforcement effort running through Labor Day.

The national crackdown aims to prevent the incidence of alcohol-related highway fatalities, which typically surge in summer months and over the extended Labor Day weekend.

Here in Maine, the statewide “Drive Sober” campaign means local law enforcement will conduct high-visibility sobriety checkpoints in an effort to catch any drivers who’ve had too many beers at a Labor Day barbecue. These well-intentioned enforcement efforts, however, are misguided: Sobriety checkpoints are ineffective and easily avoided by drunks.

To understand the shortcomings of checkpoints, consider the numbers. On Aug. 19, for example, 821 cars drove through a checkpoint in Frederick, Maryland. The three-hour effort caught just one impaired driver.

Dismal arrest rates are common across the country, with checkpoint operations frequently failing to produce a single drunken driving arrest. Recent checkpoints conducted in Ohio (Aug. 14) and Florida (Jul. 31) both caught no impaired drivers, despite hundreds of cars passing through the roadblocks.

Checkpoint advocates often point to these dismal results as evidence the enforcement method works. According to this logic, low drunken driving arrest rates (or no arrests at all) are proof that checkpoints effectively deter impaired drivers from getting behind the wheel.

But because checkpoints are so easy to avoid, it’s impossible to know whether a driver made responsible choices out of fear of passing through a sobriety roadblock or simply opted to take another route home.

Drunken drivers can evade checkpoints easily. Law enforcement agencies usually publicize the time and place of a sobriety roadblock in advance, and local media outlets often inform residents about upcoming checkpoints scheduled in the region. There are even smartphone apps dedicated to publicizing the locations of checkpoints.

Checkpoints also are highly visible by design. That means drivers who aren’t expecting to pass through a checkpoint still can spot the flashing lights and traffic snarls of a roadblock from far away.

Because checkpoints are so noticeable, drivers worried they’ve had too much to drink usually have time to make a legal U-Turn to avoid the roadblock. Even impaired motorists who drive through a checkpoint can feasibly do so without detection. Only a few drivers actually undergo sobriety screenings, and the selection process is based on arbitrary, pre-determined criteria (e.g., every ninth car is stopped).

Rather than trying to catch drunken drivers in the checkpoint traps they know how to avoid, police in Maine should use roving or saturation patrols, where officers actively seek out drunken and dangerous drivers.

On Labor Day in 2013, more than one-fourth of all fatal traffic accidents involved drunken drivers with blood alcohol levels at or above 0.15 percent, nearly twice the legal 0.08 limit. Aggressive saturation patrols are more likely than passive checkpoint operations to catch these dangerous offenders.

This targeted approach of searching for dangerous drivers also protects the public from other types of unsafe motorists, such as those who are drowsy, distracted or driving too fast.

Roving patrols are more cost-effective as well. A single sobriety checkpoint can cost up to $10,000, compared to just $300 for the more effective roving patrol. According to the American Automobile Association: “Many police departments favor [saturation patrols] over sobriety checkpoints for their effectiveness, reduced staffing, and the comparative ease of operating saturation patrols.”

This Labor Day weekend, Maine should use its limited resources and law enforcement officers to conduct sensible policing that does a better job keeping our roads safe. Unlike the stationary sobriety checkpoints that drunken drivers easily avoid, active saturation patrols actually enforce the message of the ongoing traffic safety campaign: “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over.”

Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a trade group based in Washington, D.C., that lobbies on behalf of the restaurant industry.

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