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Battling DUI: A comparative analysis of checkpoints and saturation patrols.

Since September 11, 2001, drunk drivers have killed more people than actually died on that day. Not to take away from the tragedy of September 11, but drunk driving deaths are happening every day in America. (1)

For many years, the law enforcement community has attempted to detect impaired drivers through numerous innovative efforts and measures. The problem of driving under the influence (DUI) is well known throughout society, yet, even with all of the strategies used to remove these drivers from U.S. highways, it continues to cause needless and tragic loss of life each year. 'When will such madness end? When will society no longer tolerate drunk driving? Until that time, the law enforcement community must attempt to contain the carnage inflicted upon law-abiding citizens by impaired drivers. (2)

Law enforcement has two basic methods of dealing with the DUI problem--sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols. Sobriety checkpoints have existed for several years and have served as a deterrent to drunk driving across many communities. Although not the most aggressive method of removing impaired drivers from America's roadways, these checkpoints comprise one piece of public awareness and education relevant to the drinking and driving dilemma.

Saturation patrols, on the other hand, constitute a vigorous tactic employed by law enforcement agencies to significantly impact an area known for a high concentration of alcohol-impaired drivers. Law enforcement agencies have used saturation patrols much longer than checkpoints, sometimes under a different name or no name at all. Which method offers the best use of law enforcement's limited resources? The choice depends upon many issues, such as funding, resource allocations, and targeted areas.

The Problem

According to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics, 16,653 people died in alcohol-related crashes in 2000, an increase of more than 800 deaths from 1999. This represented the largest percentage increase on record. (3) By some estimates, about two out of every five Americans will be involved in an alcohol-related crash at some time in their lives. (4) These tragic statistics dramatically illustrate that DUI is a serious problem.

Research has indicated, however, that most impaired drivers never get arrested. Police stop some drivers, but often miss signs of impairment. (5) Estimates revealed that as many as 2,000 alcohol-impaired driving trips occur for every arrest, and, even when special drinking-driving enforcement patrols are conducted, as many as 300 trips occur for each arrest. Because the police cannot catch all offenders, the success of alcohol-impaired driving laws depends on deterring potential offenders by creating the public perception that apprehension and punishment of offenders is probable. Research also has shown that the likelihood of apprehension is more important in deterring offenders than the severity of punishment. (6) Therefore, enforcement is the key to creating the perception of a possibility of capture, while publicizing these efforts can effect a real threat of detainment.

Sobriety Checkpoints

Sobriety checkpoint programs are defined as procedures in which law enforcement officers restrict traffic flow in a designated, specific location so they can check drivers for signs of alcohol impairment. If officers detect any type of incapacitation based upon their observations, they can perform additional testing, such as field sobriety or breath analysis tests. (7) To this end, agencies using checkpoints must have a written policy as a directive for their officers to follow.

Agencies normally choose locations for checkpoints from areas that statistically reveal a large number of alcohol-related crashes or offenses. Officers stop vehicles based on traffic flow, staffing, and overall safety. They must stop vehicles in an arbitrary sequence, whether they stop all vehicles or a specified portion of them. Checkpoints offer a visible enforcement method intended to deter potential offenders, as well as to apprehend impaired drivers. Agencies should set up checkpoints frequently, over extended periods, and publicize them well.

Sobriety checkpoints must display warning signs to approaching motorists. Also, they normally will provide opportunities for drivers to actually avoid the checkpoint, usually with an alternate route that a driver could divert to after passing the checkpoint warning signs. Agencies typically post an officer in a marked cruiser at each end of the checkpoint. These officers can observe the driving behavior of those who choose to avoid the checkpoint.

Used to deter drinking and driving, sobriety checkpoints are related more directly to educating the public and encouraging designated drivers, rather than actually apprehending impaired drivers. Typically, sobriety checkpoints do not yield a large volume of DUI arrests. Instead, they offer authorities an educational tool. Education and awareness serve as a significant part of deterrence. Frequent use of checkpoints and aggressive media coverage can create a convincing threat in people's minds that officers will apprehend impaired drivers--a key to general deterrence. In addition, public opinion polls have indicated that 70 to 80 percent of Americans surveyed favored the increased use of sobriety checkpoints as an effective law enforcement tool to combat impaired driving. (8)

Saturation Patrols

Saturation patrols involve an increased enforcement effort targeting a specific geographic area to identify and arrest impaired drivers. This area always is much larger than the location chosen for a sobriety checkpoint. However, site selection proves vital in both sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrol initiatives. Some states require documentation as to why a specific location was chosen. Selected sites should have a statistically high incidence of DUI crashes or fatalities and take into account officer and motorist safety.

Saturation patrols concentrate their enforcement on impaired driving behaviors, such as left of center, following too closely, reckless driving, aggressive driving, and speeding. Multiple agencies often combine and concentrate their resources to conduct saturation patrols. Therefore, planning represents a vital part of these efforts. All involved parties should participate in the planning phase, furnishing their specific views and concerns.

Saturation patrols may afford a more effective means of detecting repeat offenders, who are likely to avoid detection at sobriety checkpoints. These patrols also may more effectively impact a specific geographic location with a history of a high number of alcohol-related crashes. They must enhance people's perceptions of being detected to be effective. Therefore, saturation patrols require the same intense media attention as sobriety checkpoints. In addition, prosecutors and judges must support saturation patrols. These efforts also must remain ongoing, not merely a onetime operation, to produce successful results, the same as with sobriety checkpoint programs.

A Comparative Study

Statistics compiled by two agencies, similar in size and area of responsibility, offer an overview of the scope of the DUI problem. (9) In 2000, the Missouri State Highway Patrol conducted 58 sobriety checkpoints and arrested 323 drivers for DUI. The Ohio State Highway Patrol carried out 12 sobriety checkpoints and arrested 77 drivers for DUI. In 2001, Missouri effected 67 sobriety checkpoints and arrested 318 drivers for DUI. Ohio implemented 19 sobriety checkpoints and arrested 126 drivers for DUI. Since 1989, the Ohio State Highway Patrol has participated in 156 sobriety checkpoints and arrested 807 drivers for DUI.

In the past 2 years, the Missouri State Highway Patrol conducted 822 saturation patrol operations, arresting 1,666 drivers for DUI. The Ohio State Highway Patrol performs saturation patrols on a regular basis across the state. The agency arrests an average of 25,000 DUI drivers per year through all DUI-related operations.

In another example, from 1994 to 1995, Tennessee, in cooperation with the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, implemented a statewide campaign completing nearly 900 sobriety checkpoints. Law enforcement agencies conducted these in all 95 counties in Tennessee in just over 1 year. The checkpoint program was highly publicized and conducted basically every week. The evaluation of the program revealed it as highly favorable in reducing the number of alcohol-related fatal crashes. Although the program only netted 773 arrests for DUI, the deterrent factor created by the continuous use of the checkpoints and the media attention received resulted in the program's success. (10)

What do these statistics convey? Basically, Missouri averaged about five DUI arrests per checkpoint, Ohio averaged less than seven DUI arrests per checkpoint, and Tennessee's aggressive checkpoint program averaged less than one DUI arrest per checkpoint. (11)

What these figures do not show is the number of impaired drivers deterred by the operations, either through sobriety checkpoints or saturation patrols. Those statistics never will be clearly identified, but any lives saved by such efforts are worth the effort and resources allocated.

What also is not accounted for in these statistics is the additional number of other enforcement actions taken, such as safety belt, commercial vehicle, and child safety seat arrests; speeding violations; warnings for various traffic infractions or vehicle defects; and motorist assists. Detecting such additional violations is more probable during saturation patrols, as opposed to sobriety checkpoints. This alone could represent another measure of effectiveness of saturation patrols.

Overall, measured in arrests per hour, a dedicated saturation patrol is the most effective method of apprehending offenders. Such concerted efforts also may serve as a general deterrence if their activities are publicized and become widely known.

Critics have pointed out that sobriety checkpoints produce fewer arrests per hour than dedicated patrols, but some studies show arrest rates can be increased greatly when police employ passive alcohol sensors (i.e., devices that can measure the alcohol content in the air, which officers can use while talking to a motorist passing through the checkpoint) to help detect drinking drivers. However, focusing on arrests is a misleading way to consider the value of checkpoints. The purpose of frequent checkpoints is to increase public awareness and deter potential offenders, resulting in the ideal situation where very few offenders are left to apprehend.

Sobriety checkpoint programs in Florida, North Carolina, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Virginia have led to a reduction in alcohol-related crashes. In 1995, North Carolina conducted a statewide enforcement and publicity campaign aimed at impaired drivers. The campaign was deemed a success, indicating "drivers with blood alcohol levels at or above 0.08 percent declined from 198 per 10,000 before the program to 90 per 10,000 after the intensive 3-week alcohol-impaired publicity and enforcement campaign." (12)

Other Factors

Is public awareness and education important? The key aspect in both sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols rests with public awareness. The perception of a higher risk of detection for driving under the influence of alcohol may deter more people from driving after drinking. The more the public understands the issues and severity of the consequences, the better they will accept drunk driving as a problem and will embrace a crusade to reduce occurrences. Indeed, agencies must have public support to succeed.

All law enforcement agencies must accept that the media plays a vital role in combating impaired drivers. They must use all outlets possible to spread the word about this needless tragedy that happens every day. All media entities are looking for stories. By working closely with them, agencies can get the message out about the dangers of drunk driving. The sooner agencies realize the importance of the media, the sooner they will gain a valuable ally in their fight. Agencies can garner a great deal of support from the public when they speak out on this vital issue.

Are stricter laws and sanctions working? Twenty-seven states and the District of Columbia have reduced their blood alcohol content (BAG) threshold to .08 percent from .10 percent in another effort to reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes. The federal government also has adopted the standard of .08 percent BAC, encouraging states to change to .08 percent. In 2003, states that have not adopted the .08 percent standard will lose millions of federal dollars for road construction. Currently, 22 states have the BAG threshold of .10 percent, Ohio included. Studies by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Center for Injury Prevention and Control indicated, on average, that states adopting .08 percent have reduced crash deaths involving alcohol by 7 percent. (13)

Administrative license suspension laws continue to become more aggressive, attempting to create a stronger deterrent environment. Estimates have indicated that they reduce driver involvement in fatal crashes by about 9 percent. (14) Some laws providing for the suspension or revocation of licenses have indicated a reduction in the subsequent crash involvement of those drivers who previously have been convicted of an alcohol-related offense. Although it is known that many suspended drivers continue to drive, they tend to drive less and possibly more carefully, attempting to avoid detection.


While many conclusions can be drawn from an analysis of sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, both serve a significant purpose and, used together, can be effective in reducing the number of impaired drivers. Law enforcement agencies may find that only one of these works for them, depending upon resources. Others may determine a combination of both is needed to successfully combat the problem in their communities. Regardless of the selected method, it remains essential to identify the specific keys to removing more impaired drivers from U.S. highways, including--

* exposing a sufficient number of motorists to the enforcement efforts and the likelihood of being arrested;

* improving officers' skills in detecting impaired drivers;

* implementing an aggressive, continuous, and committed media effort;

* continuing efforts by legislatures and courts in an attempt to consistently punish violators and deter impaired driving; and

* identifying problem areas, high-level crash locations, and large volumes of impaired drivers.

It is proven that saturation efforts will bring more DUI arrests than sobriety checkpoints. If that represents an agency's goal and it has the resources, then it should use saturation patrols. If an agency's goal weighs heavier on the educational side, it should use sobriety checkpoints. If an agency should choose to use checkpoints over saturation patrols, the evidence is clear that infrequent use is not effective. So, an agency must consider the cost incurred with the frequent use of sobriety checkpoints. Resources (time and money) may greatly affect an agency's decision regarding which method to employ.

If an agency's goal is to reduce the number of impaired drivers over time, it should use both sobriety checkpoints and saturation patrols, as well as any other available methods. The bottom line is to do something--do everything--to remove impaired drivers from America's highways.


Law enforcement agencies should not accept mediocrity in the area of driving under the influence enforcement. It is not a societal problem. It is everyone's problem, and no one should take it lightly. More people die or are injured on this nation's highways due to impaired driving than from all other causes combined. It is unacceptable, and all Americans pay a price, whether personal, financial, or professional.

Law enforcement agencies must take up the challenge and employ every available weapon to combat this deadly threat. This is a "mission possible." Through better education, increased awareness, and some strict penalties, the battle can be won. Working in collaboration with one another, the public, the law enforcement community, and the judicial system can help prevent the needless loss of life that results from drunk driving. "When people are knocked away one at a time, it doesn't make the headlines like it should, but we've got to make Americans realize the fact that it's still the number one killer, and it's 100 percent preventable. This is one thing that we can all work together to do something about." (15)


(1.) Millie I. Webb, former national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), quoted in "Advocates Seek to Rejuvenate Fight Against Drunk Driving," Criminal Justice Funding Report (Arlington, VA: Capitol City Publishers, July 3, 2002), 4-5.

(2.) The author based this article on research he conducted and a paper he composed for a course while attending Northwestern University, School of Police Staff and Command.

(3.) Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Statistics and Resources; retrieved on January 20, 2002, from

(4.) Ohio State Highway Patrol, "Sobriety Checkpoints," Monthly News Article (2001); retrieved on January 20, 2002, from

(5.) Dekalb County, Georgia, Police Department, Strategic Traffic Accident Reduction Team Report: Deterrence and Enforcement; retrieved on January 22, 2002, from homepages/starteam/dui-qu.htlm.

(6.) Ibid.

(7.) Paul Blowers and Jack Stuster, National Commission Against Drunk Driving, Experimental Evaluation of Sobriety Checkpoint Programs (1995); retrieved on January 20, 2002, from

(8.) Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Sobriety Checkpoints: Facts and Myths; retrieved on January 20, 2002, from,1056,1229,00.html.

(9.) For all Missouri statistics, see Robert Stieffermann, Missouri State Highway Patrol, Progress on Strategic Planning Priorities-Statistics, February 11, 2002. For all Ohio statistics, see Ohio State Highway Patrol, Office of Field Operations, Sobriety Checkpoint Statistics, January 23, 2002.

(10.) Fell, Jones, and Lacey, National Commission Against Drunk Driving, The Effectiveness of the "Checkpoint Tennessee" Program (1996); retrieved on January 20, 2002, from http.// html.

(11.) Supra notes 9 and 10.

(12.) Supra note 5.

(13.) J.C. Fell, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Status Report (Arlington, VA, June 2001), 6.

(14.) Supra note 5.

(15.) Supra note 1.

Staff Lieutenant Greene serves with the Ohio State Highway Patrol in Wilmington.
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Title Annotation:driving under the influence
Author:Greene, Jeffrey W.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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