By Seth Richardson
As if it wasn’t bad enough that out of 2,787 drivers whose liberty was infringed by a 4th of July DUI checkpoint, only 17 were “cited for DUI,” a new study from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration demonstrates that the actual risks of encountering a drunk driver are quite small as well.
A 2007 NHTSA study just released, conducted at 300 locations nationwide and involving nearly 11,000 drivers who volunteered to be tested, concluded that only 2.2 percent of drivers tested had blood-alcohol content above the legal limit of 0.08 percent, half the previous number in 1996 and just over a quarter of the number of 7.8 percent in 1973.
Fewer people are driving while intoxicated, and that’s a good thing, but another conclusion of the study is more alarming, but not for the obvious reasons. The study found that 16 percent of drivers tested on weekend nights tested positive for marijuana, cocaine, prescription sedatives and other drugs. This may sound alarming, but it’s really not, and we should ignore the fear-mongering proclamations of people like Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, who said in an ONDCP blog entry on July 13th, “The troubling data shows us, for the first time, the scope of drugged driving in America, and reinforces the need to reduce drug abuse. Drugged driving, like drunk driving… puts us all at risk and must be prevented.”
The problem with Czar Kerlikowske’s hysterical pontification is that it has no basis in scientific fact, as carefully pointed out by the very researchers who conducted the NHTSA study, which explicitly points out that “The reader is cautioned that drug presence does not necessarily imply impairment. For many drug types, drug presence can be detected long after any impairment that might affect driving has passed. For example, traces of marijuana can be detected in blood samples several weeks after chronic users stop ingestion. Also, whereas the impairment effects for various concentration levels of alcohol is well understood, little evidence is available to link concentrations of other drug types to driver performance.” And this: “The result of these factors is that, at the current time, specific drug concentration levels cannot be reliably equated with effects on driver performance.”
The study, available in PDF form from a link on the page link above, points out that whether or not drug use, illegal or legal, impairs driving ability is a complex and poorly understood scientific matter and that a good deal of research is required before any valid conclusions can be drawn. “The full significance of these findings for highway safety will only become clear when ongoing and additional research conducted by NHTSA and others is completed,” the report concludes.
The study also points out that NHTSA has been pursuing an educational program for police officers to train them to recognize the “symptoms of driver impairment by drugs other than alcohol.” More than 1000 instructors and 6000 officers in 46 states have received this training.
In the NHTSA “Highway Safety Desk Book,” a federal reference guide for local law enforcement, the federal government pays at least lip service to the idea that the emphasis should be on detecting impaired drivers and getting them off the road. “While substances affect different individuals in differing degrees, laws should emphasize the impairment of the driver—not the type, legal or illegal, or even the amount of the substance ingested.”
What’s important about this training program is that it’s nothing new. Police officers are routinely trained to recognize bad driving behavior indicative of intoxication, regardless of the source of the impairment, as justification for stopping someone. For many years a handbook has been available to law enforcement officers that predicts the probability of a driver being impaired based on an officer’s observation of bad driving. For example, driving without headlights at night or slow response to changing traffic signals indicates a “statistically valid” probability of .45 to .65 that the driver is impaired to a level consistent with a 0.08 percent BAC. As a former certified DUI enforcement officer, I used this handbook way back in the 1980s. Indeed, even a layman can keep a copy of this handbook in their car and use it to detect drunk drivers themselves, whom they can then follow and report to the police, as I have done many times since retiring from law enforcement.
There are more than 100 such cues and associated probabilities available for officers to observe in the actual driving behavior of a suspect that can provide plenty of probable cause for the officer to stop and investigate further, and a combination of these cues can in and of themselves, without any chemical test, provide not only probable cause to arrest, but proof beyond a reasonable doubt of the suspect’s guilt in court. In fact, some estimates are that prosecutors actually present chemical test results less than 50 percent of the time, and that DUI defense lawyers have little difficulty in getting such results thrown out because of technical or procedural difficulties with the test, which is a big part of why prosecutors don’t present them in court. The majority of people are convicted of DUI based only on the testimony of the officer about his observations of the defendant’s physical behavior and driving ability.
In other words, police officers are already well trained to detect intoxicated drivers, and all they need is be in a position to observe and apprehend them. DUI checkpoints are notoriously ineffective at doing either. Typically the success ratio for such checkpoints is one percent or less, and in order to conduct a checkpoint, officers have to be taken away from other general law enforcement duties and they are stuck at a single location, dependent on the amount of traffic passing by for even the minimal success they enjoy. DUI checkpoints are an enormous waste of police resources, taxpayer money and they are almost completely ineffective at actually getting drunks off the highway.
The NHTSA insists, “the sobriety checkpoint is a highly visible enforcement mechanism. … Its purpose is to maximize deterrence, by increasing the risk perception of motorists who drive while impaired by alcohol or drugs.” What this statement proves is that DUI checkpoints are more about fear mongering, exercise of police authority and potential deterrence than they are about apprehending actual impaired drivers.
To successfully apprehend drivers who are actually impaired, police officers should not waste their time standing around waiting for a drunk driver to miss the “DUI Checkpoint Ahead” signs and wander into a checkpoint, they should be out driving around, observing driving behavior and comparing it to the cues provided by the NHTSA to achieve reasonable suspicion to stop and probable cause to arrest. In addition to having officers on the street and able to respond to emergencies, by doing so, they do not violate the civil rights of the 97.8 percent of sober drivers, and they greatly enhance their chances of coming across one of the 2.2 percent of drivers who are actually dangerous to the public.