On a Saturday night last month, a sobriety checkpoint in Harrisburg, PA stopped 475 vehicles. But for all their efforts, police in Dauphin County made only two DUI arrests. At that same checkpoint location in 2015, 300 vehicles where stopped and 24 arrests were made.
Sobriety checkpoints have long served as a high-visibility enforcement strategy against drunk and impaired driving, but with so few arrests, is it really worth it?
Deterring DUIs or Wasting Time and Resources?
The debate as to whether or not sobriety checkpoints are an effective strategy against drunk driving isn’t new. But determining if sobriety checkpoints serve their intended purpose often depends on what type of results are expected. According to Dauphin County’s chief detective John Goshert, the goal of the Harrisburg checkpoint was not arrests, but deterrence—which is often a harder result to quantify.
While public expectations around checkpoints often focus on arrests, law enforcement agencies view them as opportunities for deterring and educating the public on the dangers of impaired driving. Police do measure the number of arrests in relation to total stops, but success is typically measured by changes in total alcohol-related motor vehicle incidents, including injuries and deaths. According to a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) fact sheet, a review of checkpoint studies found they “reduced alcohol-related fatal, injury, and property damage crashes each by about 20 percent” with another analysis indicating “checkpoints reduced alcohol-related crashes by 17 percent, and all crashes by 10 to 15 percent.”
No matter how success is defined, one thing is clear, checkpoints are resource-intensive, requiring many hours, officers, and a range of agency equipment to operate. But there’s a tactic law enforcement agencies are using to supplement their DUI enforcement, one that broadens the scope of traditional sobriety checkpoints.
Flexible Sobriety Checkpoints: A Low-Cost Tactic
Flexible checkpoints or “phantom checkpoints” are a strategy that involves staging with enforcement vehicles and signs, but not fully staffing a checkpoint, providing police with an alternative method of DUI enforcement that is less expensive. By creating the appearance of a sobriety checkpoint, the objective is mainly to raise police visibility and DUI awareness within the community.
With flexible checkpoints, officers rarely stop or arrest drivers, but the goal of deterring drunk driving is achieved as drivers observe law enforcement presence and activity. In a study conducted last year by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administrations (NHTSA), researchers determined that flexible checkpoints serve as “a versatile, low-cost tool that virtually any size law enforcement agency can adapt to enhance enforcement and increase public awareness of enforcement efforts.”
The primary purpose of checkpoints is clear: to deter drunk and impaired driving, not to increase DUI arrests. As long as law enforcement agencies are able to increase the perceived risk of stops with the potential consequence of being arrested for DUI, sobriety checkpoints will continue to be an effective tool for deterring impaired driving.