A car is headed for impound after being stopped at a recent DUI checkpoint in Fullerton. Credit: Tracy Wood

Friday, April 9, 2010 |For all of the effort expended by police departments on DUI checkpoints, they’re not the best way to catch drunks behind the wheel.

In 2008, just more than 5,000 drunk drivers were nabbed at 1,740 checkpoints statewide. That number represents about 2.3 percent of all California drunk driving arrests in 2008, according to statistics compiled by the state’s Office of Traffic Safety.

Meanwhile, nearly 215,000 DUI arrests were made by regular police and California Highway Patrol officers on their daily patrols, the Department of Motor Vehicles reported.

But despite these statistics, the checkpoints are here to stay. While they may not be good at catching drunk drivers, they have proven quite effective in capturing something else very important to local police agencies: federal dollars.

Roughly $14 million in federal grant money was spent statewide in 2008 on checkpoints. Orange County law enforcement agencies will receive at least $2.5 million in federal grants this fiscal year for checkpoints.

Grants cover virtually all costs for the checkpoints including overtime for officers so inspections don’t interfere with regular police work.

“If you see a check point, the chances are extremely good that that’s grant funded,” said Chris Cochran, spokesman for the California Office of Traffic Safety which administers federal safe driving grants.

Federal grants for checkpoints jumped nationally in fiscal 2006 from $40 million the previous year to $120 million. For fiscal 2009, grant funding was $139 million, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Both Cochran and Mothers Against Drunk Driving Orange County Interim Director Mary Beth Griffith say there is clear evidence that checkpoints are a deterrent.

They point to the fact that drunk driving fatalities have decreased in recent years and say the drop is at least partly attributable to checkpoints being an effective way to educate the public about drunk driving.

Cochran cited the Office of Traffic Safety’s 2009 performance report which said alcohol-related deaths from driving accidents dropped 9.1 percent from 2007 to 2008 and, since 2005, fatalities have gone down “a staggering 20.1 percent.”

And MADD’s Griffith noted a U.S. Transportation Department report in March that said preliminary statistics show national traffic fatalities in 2009 were at their lowest level since 1954. And the rate has been steadily going down for more than three years.

Griffith said she would “like to believe it’s because more people are being arrested before they could cause a crash.”

However, when the government released the 2009 fatality numbers last month, one of the nations top auto safety watchdogs attributed the drop in fatalities primarily to the Great Recession.

“It’s a consistent pattern that the silver lining in any recession is a dip – and sometimes a significant dip – in highway deaths,” Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, told the Baltimore Sun.

The government report, according to the Sun’s reporting, shows a downward trend in fatalities that increased as the national economy went into recession and Americans began driving fewer miles. The number of deaths on the nation’s roads prior to 2008 routinely surpassed 40,000.

Nonetheless, Cochran insists that “checkpoints are the best deterrent for DUI (driving under the influence) fatalities.”

One reason for their success, he said, is that they reach both drinkers and non-drinkers, helping educate both groups about the dangers of drinking and driving and, hopefully, inspiring non-drinking family and friends to get behind the wheel when they’re with someone who has been drinking.

“One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Stop!” Shouts a voice from the dark as officers begin their inspection at a recent checkpoint in Fullerton.

The police check for a valid driver’s license and then chat with (and sniff) drivers to see if they seem impaired by alcohol or drugs. Officers also give each driver they stop anti-drinking and driving literature from MADD.

But a recent investigation by the investigative news website California Watch revealed that police agencies do more than just sniff for booze and hand out pamphlets at checkpoints.

They also impounded the cars of unlicensed drivers whether they’ve been drinking or not. And the agencies make big money doing it, according to California Watch’s reporting. The website also found that minority motorists — and often illegal immigrants — were often the most likely to have their cars impounded.

Even with such revelations, Cochran said federal dollars for the checkpoints will keep coming. “It’s a trend more than a spike,” he said.

Please contact Tracy Wood directly at twood@voiceofoc.org and follow her on Twitter: twitter.com/tracy111. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

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