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Why drunk driving enforcement is an important police activity

One of the main goals of drunk driving enforcement is to raise the perception among drinking drivers that they will be stopped and investigated for drunk driving

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, every two hours, three people are killed in alcohol-related highway crashes, and according to MADD — Mothers Against Drunk Driving — a person is injured due to a drunk driving crash every two minutes in this country. In addition to deaths and injuries, drunk driving harms individuals and communities in many ways. For example:

• Injured persons, their families, and their employers suffer financial losses when an injured person cannot work
• Vehicles, trees, utility poles, highway signs, and buildings, are damaged and destroyed
• Motor vehicle insurance rates rise, even for non-offenders
• Traffic flow is impeded by vehicles crashed by drunk drivers
• Fire, EMS, and ER resources are consumed treating the victims of drunk driving crashes
• Court and jail resources are consumed prosecuting and incarcerating drunk drivers

Perhaps the single most significant factor in explaining why people drive while impaired is that they believe there is very little risk they will be caught by police — and statistically speaking, they are correct. Again, according to MADD, more than 300,000 people drive drunk every day, but only about 3,200 are arrested.

Increasing enforcement efforts
What are the most effective ways to reduce the scourge of drunk driving? First and foremost, increasing the effectiveness of enforcement efforts is essential to changing the perception among offenders that they will “get away with” driving drunk.

In addition to making arrests of drunk drivers, one of the main goals of drunk driving enforcement is to raise the perception among drinking drivers that they will be stopped and investigated for drunk driving. This can be achieved by increasing the total number of drivers stopped by police and by improving the detection of alcohol impairment once a stop is made.

Police leaders should ensure that patrol officers are regularly updated in training for the execution of the Standardized Field Sobriety Test (SFST) during traffic stops. Those leaders should also gather and disseminate statistical information about the locations and times that most commonly produce alcohol-related collisions. Directed patrol can work wonders at lowering the number of people willing to risk blowing into a breathalyzer during their drive home from the local watering hole or friend’s house.

Further — and perhaps more importantly — agencies should seek to conduct regular (but random) sobriety checkpoints. While resource-intensive, these checkpoints do result in a reduction in the incidences of drunk driving. Regularly conducting sobriety checkpoints with only a few officers can be a powerful deterrent. To be effective, checkpoints should be highly visible, so that drivers perceive that their risk of being stopped and arrested has increased.

While directed patrols in which drunk driving is a high priority often yield more arrests for the resources invested in many cases, sobriety checkpoints also produce the added benefit of apprehending drivers for violations other than just drunk driving.

Getting stakeholders involved
It is important to note that a successful strategy will involve implementing several different responses, because law enforcement alone is seldom effective in reducing or eliminating the problem. Police leaders should not limit their efforts to considering what police can do — instead, it is wise to also consider who else in your community shares responsibility for the problem and can help address it. For example, police can reach out to:

• Clergy, who can use the pulpit to address the idea of driving safety
• Schools, that can educate kids on the dangers of drunk driving
• Media, that can broadcast your intentions to increase checkpoints
• Bartenders, who may need to be reminded about overserving drunks
• MADD, who would be more than happy to help you in your efforts

Getting help from the NHTSA
Now is a perfect time to give your department’s drunk driving enforcement a boost, and to get your community on board. Running now through September 5, the national enforcement mobilization “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” campaign is underway across the country.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has a host of documents and resources — everything from fact sheets to videos and banner ads for your agency website — for law enforcement leaders to use to reach out to the community and the news media.

One of the reasons drunk driving is of such concern is that it is an offense committed by a broad spectrum of the population, including those who are otherwise generally law-abiding. Incrementally increasing — even by just a little bit — your agency’s enforcement efforts can have a very positive impact on your jurisdiction and the citizens you serve.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.