Over Thanksgiving, Americans ate about 46 million turkeys. While most families purchased their poultry at a grocery store or deli, 0.000007 percent of the holiday birds were distributed by police officers at a sobriety checkpoint in Salinas, Calif. That's no surprise. The statistics generated by roadblocks are regularly fractions of a percent.
Over the rest of the holiday season, similar initiatives will dedicate thousands of police hours and millions of tax dollars to setting up roadblocks that stop cars indiscriminately hoping to find drunken drivers. And to what end?
Testimony from a Pennsylvania Department of Transportation official demonstrated that roving patrols, where cops swarm the roads looking for erratic drivers, are a superior tactic for catching drunken drivers. Transportation official Louis Rader testified that 0.7 percent of all drivers stopped at DUI checkpoints are charged, while 7.7 percent of suspicion-based stops made by roving patrols yield charges. That's 10 times more arrests per car stopped.
Federal funding policy requires roadblocks to be "highly publicized." So authorities regularly publish roadblock times and locations in advance, allowing veteran drunken drivers to simply drive around them. Then there are the word-of-mouth and cell phone networks, similar to truckers who tell their friends about speed traps.
In the war against drunken driving, setting up roadblocks is like expecting the enemy to walk into your camp and surrender. It would be laughable if it weren't so tragic.
Eleven states don't use roadblocks. Last year, those states averaged 7 percent fewer alcohol-related fatalities than the states that funneled scarce resources into checkpoint programs. And the statistics reveal why.
One West Virginia police lieutenant told a local reporter: "We've had some (checkpoints) where we went six hours and made zero arrests. Occasionally we'll get two or three." Newspaper headlines nationwide echo a similar trend. As recently as Memorial Day weekend, several roadblocks from California to Vermont failed to remove any drunken drivers from the roadways.
Everyone agrees that something must be done about drunken driving. Promising ideas include mandatory treatment programs, longer prison terms for convicted drunken drivers and a system of graduated penalties.
With inevitably scarce resources, it's important to put taxpayer dollars into programs that work. That will require leaving aside less effective ideas.
To combat drunken driving effectively, we must fund the most effective solutions. Funneling resources into roadblocks will lead us down the road to nowhere. Do we want superficially appealing campaigns, or do we want to actually catch drunks?
Checkpoints may give traffic officials a nice PR campaign. But, unlike holiday gift giving, when it comes to traffic safety, it's not just the thought that counts.
Sarah Longwell is the managing director of the American Beverage Institute.