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A Healthy Return on Your Town Hall Meeting Investment—Getting to Outcomes: Sobriety Checkpoints

03/14/2012

Regardless of economic ups and downs, our Nation’s investment in efforts to reduce alcohol-related injuries and deaths among youth has been yielding consistently high returns. Highway crashes involving alcohol-impaired drivers under age 21 have declined dramatically as an outcome of zero tolerance and minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) laws.1 Sobriety checkpoints (also called roadside safety checks) have been effectively supporting enforcement of both of these laws. The effectiveness of checkpoints has particular relevance to young people aged 15 to 24, for whom impaired driving is the leading cause of death. A 2012 Town Hall Meeting, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), may be the perfect venue for engaging your community in promoting or strengthening sobriety checkpoints as a type of environmental prevention2 of underage drinking. A Town Hall Meeting can increase your community’s understanding and awareness of sobriety checkpoints and how they will be implemented.

What are sobriety checkpoints?

As defined by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), “Sobriety checkpoints are an effective law enforcement tool involving the stopping of vehicles or a specific sequence of vehicles, at a predetermined fixed location, to accomplish two goals: raise the public’s perception of being arrested for driving while impaired (DWI), and detection of drivers impaired by alcohol and/or other drugs.” Because of constitutional issues and legal rulings, not all States conduct sobriety checkpoints. However, in some States where sobriety checkpoints are not allowed or likely to occur, law enforcement can implement roadside safety checks where testing for sobriety is only one aspect of a larger safety check (e.g., checking that lights are working or children are in car seats).

How do sobriety checkpoints reduce underage drinking and its consequences?

Sobriety checkpoints are often part of comprehensive enforcement efforts to deter alcohol-impaired driving. Combined with a vigorous awareness campaign, checkpoints also tend to decrease alcohol-related traffic crashes and fatalities among youth. For example, a study of zero tolerance and MLDA laws in all 50 States found that the enforcement of zero tolerance laws alone was associated with a 24.4 percent reduction in fatal crashes among young drivers. However, this same review found that when both zero tolerance laws and the 21-year-old MLDA law were enforced, fatal crashes among underage drivers were reduced by 39 percent.3

How can my community take this action?

Take the following steps to initiate or strengthen sobriety checkpoints:

  • Assess the status of sobriety checkpoints in your area. As of January 2012, 38 States, the District of Columbia, the Northern Mariana Islands, and the Virgin Islands conducted sobriety checkpoints. Check the Governors Highway Safety Association’s summary of sobriety checkpoint laws to determine if and how often sobriety checkpoints are conducted in your State; this information can help guide your community’s next course of action.

  • Build community support. Groups such as local physicians, the American Red Cross, and families who have been affected by drinking and driving can be strong advocates for checkpoints. Prosecutors can provide advice about the laws governing checkpoints in your State and the types of evidence necessary to prosecute checkpoint arrests. Judges can provide information about effectively adjudicating cases.

  • Raise public awareness. Vigorous and widespread campaigns about impaired driving laws improve their effectiveness. To bring recognition to your efforts, consider choosing a theme for all sobriety checkpoint activities (e.g., “Sober or Slammer” [South Carolina], “Operation Zero Tolerance” [Georgia], “Smart, Safe, and Sober” [Virginia], or “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” [NHTSA]), including those done with the media.

  • Collect baseline data to support implementation of checkpoints and outcome data to support their effectiveness and sustainability. Objective measures to consider are:

    • Rates of alcohol-related crashes, injuries, and fatalities;

    • Rates of traffic stops and traffic safety checkpoints;

    • Rate of motorists detained for failed sobriety testing;

    • Rates and numbers of arrests and convictions for driving under the influence or for impaired driving.

Collecting data by age group will help illustrate how sobriety checkpoints contribute specifically to reductions in underage drinking and its consequences.

Notes

1 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (2006). Alcohol and highway safety: A review of the state of knowledge (accessed March 9, 2012).

2 Effective environmental prevention targets four key areas that influence alcohol problems: access and availability, policy and enforcement, community norms, and media messages. Research shows that policies that change the context of the environment, limit access to alcohol, and prevent harmful behavior will result in reduced alcohol use, including underage drinking.

3 Voas, R. B., Tippetts, A. S., & Fell, J. C. (2003). Assessing the effectiveness of minimum legal drinking age and zero tolerance laws in the United States. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 35(4), 579–587.

Helpful Resources

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s The Health Communicator’s Social Media Toolkit has information to expand your organization’s outreach.

NHTSA’s Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over Campaign Web site offers a variety of materials, including campaign planners and ready-to-use tools.

NHTSA’s Impaired Driving Web site includes multiple resources for reducing the prevalence and consequences of underage drinking and driving, including Low-Staffing Sobriety Checkpoints, Saturation Patrols & Sobriety Checkpoints, and Evaluation of the Checkpoint Strikeforce Program.

SAMHSA’s Focus on Prevention guides communities in planning and delivering substance abuse prevention strategies, including assessing needs, identifying partners, creating effective strategies, and evaluating programs.