DUI checkpoints debated, but deter drunk driving

By Lori Consalvo
Inland Valley Daily Bulletin

You're out for a Friday night celebration and having a few drinks with friends.

The evening is coming to an end, and you and your responsible group - who have only had a couple of drinks in between the lively conversation at a local bar - get into your cars and drive home.

It's now 1:30 a.m. and you're 10 minutes from home but traffic on the major street you're traveling on is coming to a stop.

That's when you notice the lights, the police officers, the makeshift holding stations, the tow trucks - you've been caught in a state-sponsored DUI checkpoint.

"Some people come through and they're in a hurry and they're frustrated," Ontario police Officer Craig Ansman said.

But the fear, frustration or anxiety associated with DUI checkpoints seems small in comparison to the amount of damage caused by impaired drivers.

Each year, thousands of people die from alcohol-related collisions.

In 2007, the most recent year for which totals have been available, 12,998 people died as a result of drunken driving, according to the National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration.

Law enforcement officials and citizens alike agree drunken driving is a problem, but that is where the formalities stop - the groups can't seem to decide on a way to curtail the problem.

Police and California Highway Patrol officers as well as sheriff's deputies support DUI checkpoints, stating the concentrated areas help catch a number of drunken drivers.

But with checkpoints costing about $10,000 and roving patrols a mere $300, there are advocates who question the effectiveness of DUI checkpoints.

In 2008, Ontario police officers made 85 DUI arrests and 57 other arrests while working state-funded checkpoints through federal money and DUI saturation patrols, according to a police news release. The department arrested 777 drunken drivers citywide last year, an increase from 744 DUI arrests in 2007.

Ansman, who has been with the Police Department traffic unit for two years, attributes the success to DUI checkpoints. He said they work because drivers do not know where they are scheduled, calling it the "fear of the unknown."

"A lot of people ask, `Where's the checkpoint going to be?' People want to avoid them," Ansman said. "I tell people, `If you're in a taxi cab, you have nothing to worry about."'

Pomona has had a history of controversy with DUI checkpoints.

But while not everyone agrees with the checkpoints, or the tactics used, the number of traffic deaths has plunged throughout the years.

In 2003, 22 people died in Pomona as a result of traffic-related collisions. Since the acceptance of state Traffic Safety Grants for checkpoints, Pomona has significantly reduced number of fatalities to five in 2007 and none in 2008.

Officials from the American Beverage Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based restaurant trade association, said checkpoints are an ineffective method in preventing alcohol fatalities.

"Cops are pulled off the street and stand in one spot in hopes the drunken drivers come to them," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of ABI.

There are a number of reasons why checkpoints don't work, Longwell said.

"Only the dumbest drunken driver would get caught up in the checkpoints," she said. "The majority of drunken drivers simply go around them."

Longwell said there are better alternatives to stop drunken drivers from reeking havoc on the roadways - roving patrols and education.

She said she is more comfortable with the idea of putting officers on the streets in their patrol cars so they can be looking for dangerous activity like speeding cars and distracted, drowsy or drunken drivers."

"If they are out, they'll catch them," she said.

From May 28 to June 1, during high school graduation season, a Fontana police DUI saturation patrol resulted in 10 drunken driver arrests and 25 citations.

During the patrol, 80 vehicles were stopped and 27 field sobriety tests were conducted, according to a Fontana police news release. Police officers made one additional arrest for another traffic violation and impounded two vehicles.

Sgt. Michael Olivieri with the Pomona Police Traffic Services said he believes both programs, checkpoints and patrols, are necessary for safe streets.

Many law enforcement agencies will conduct patrols in addition to checkpoints throughout the year.

Checkpoints are more successful at increasing public awareness and deterring drunken driving, Olivieri said. Saturation patrols are more successful at capturing drunken drivers, but less effective at educating the public.

"We look at (checkpoints) as a great education opportunity," he said. "If 3,000 people pass through a checkpoint, then we are able to make contact with those 3,000 people."

"Checkpoints show the public we're out there."

While many look at DUI checkpoints as an effective way to screen vehicles and get impaired drivers off the road, law enforcement officials want drivers to remember there is an emotional side to the program.

Checkpoints are set up "to reduce the amount of pain and suffering and deaths that results from impaired driving," California Highway Patrol Officer Jeff Briggs said.

Staff writer Jannise Johnson contributed to this report.

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