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Ohio State Highway Patrol

Ohio State Highway Patrol Programs

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Sobriety Checkpoints

In 2007, alcohol impaired drivers were involved in 37.63% of all Ohio traffic fatalities. There were 15,054 alcohol-related crashes in Ohio in 2007, which accounted for 473 fatalities and 8.971 injuries. Nationally, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, in 2007 there were 12,998 alcohol-impaired driving fatalities in crashes involving a driver of a motor vehicle or motorcycle rider with a blood alcohol concentration of .08 grams per deciliter [g/dL] or greater.

There are a number of methods, which are complementary, that a law enforcement agency can employ to address impaired driving and other highway safety problems. Enforcement is frequently complemented by education and deterrence is enhanced by awareness. This balanced mix is essential in efficiently utilizing agency resources while maximizing the potential to reach preset goals and objectives. Each element alone cannot be as effective as an efficient mix. Enforcement without education lacks long-term impact and deterrence without awareness is futile. Enforcement alone reaches a limited number of violators and deterrence is ineffective without real enforcement. Awareness and education bring deterrence and enforcement together and foster public support and compliance.

Sobriety checkpoints, first employed by the Ohio State Highway Patrol in July 1989, are enforcement tools which mirror the Patrol's objectives and provide that essential mix crucial to effective law enforcement goals. Because our primary goal is to reduce and ultimately eliminate alcohol-related fatalities and injuries, we must complement our enforcement efforts with deterrence through awareness and education.

The principal benefit of a sobriety checkpoint is its deterrent effect on drinking drivers or potential drinking drivers. This deterrent effect has been proven to be enduring. Although a large number of OVI arrests are not expected, there is a greater perceived risk of arrests because of awareness efforts.

On June 14, 1990, the United State Supreme Court reviewed and upheld the use of sobriety checkpoints as a valid enforcement tool if operated within guidelines.

The first and perhaps the most important requirement for the establishment of a sobriety checkpoint is that the site of the check must have a long term history of alcohol-related crashes and/or incidents of impaired driving. This test establishes the need for these extraordinary deterrent efforts. After the agency establishes the need, administrators must begin the process of planning and organizing this rather substantial undertaking. Once the logistical, staffing, and operational needs have been addressed, the actual process of conducting a sobriety checkpoint can begin.

About a week before the checkpoint is conducted, public notice is given that the checkpoint will be established. At this stage of the public advisory process, it is only necessary to provide a general date, time, and location for the event. Although general, it has begun to focus on the problem area. A final advisory is issued by a checkpoint administrator a few hours before the site is established and the screening for alcohol or drug-impaired drivers begins. This advisory gives the exact location and tells when the checkpoint operation will begin and end.

About an hour or two in advance of the establishment of the checkpoint, the officer who will be in charge of the operation conducts a briefing with the police officers who will operate the various elements of the checkpoint. At this briefing, which is required by the judicial guidelines, the officer-in-charge will give an overview of the operation of the checkpoint, provide each checkpoint officer a clearly defined set of operational objectives, and emphasize all the procedures needed to make the checkpoint as safe and efficient as possible. The safety of the public and the officers in the check zone must be of paramount importance to everyone involved.

The physical makeup of the checkpoint reflects the court's and our concern for the safety of everyone using the highways. Large, highly reflectorized signs are set on the side of the road well in advance of the actual checkpoint. Fully marked police vehicles are situated at these signs on the approach to the checkpoint. It is at this point where motorists who choose not to enter the checkpoint may turn around. A second "Sobriety Checkpoint Ahead Sign" is placed at the beginning of the lane of traffic cones, fussees, and other devices that mark the boundaries of the checkpoint itself. The area is illuminated by portable lights, flares and the emergency lights of several police cars which are situated on the berm to provide additional protection for the zone.

As vehicles enter the zones, they will either be stopped by one of the checkpoint operators or they will be signaled to proceed through the zone. The conditions existing within the zone and the traffic volume will dictate which vehicles will be stopped. If the checkpoint supervisor determines that stopping every third vehicle will enhance the safe operation of the check and minimize the delay for motorists, he will maintain that vehicle stop frequency until conditions or volume dictate otherwise. This procedure allows police to meet the court requirement that the pattern of stops be uniformly random. The drivers of the vehicles are randomly stopped and observed for what the courts call "articulable signs of alcohol impairment." If the drivers exhibit none of the physical symptoms of alcohol or drug influence, they are passed through the zone with a minimum of delay. Those that do appear to be adversely affected by alcohol or drugs are taken from the checkpoint to a secured screening area.

The screening area of an operating sobriety checkpoint is nothing more than a secured area, removed from the normal flow of traffic for the safety of the driver and the officer. During the screening process, suspected drunk drivers are given the new field sobriety tests developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. These tests include a structured walk and turn, a one legged stand, and one of the most reliable indicators of alcoholic influence ever developed, alcohol gaze nystagmus examinations. As a final screen, some agencies use portable breath testers to better gauge the magnitude of the alcohol impairment. Drivers who are found to be under the influence of alcohol or drugs are detained and required to go through the normal arrest processes. Those whose driving abilities are not impaired to the degree specified by Ohio law are allowed to continue on their way.

Adherence to these guidelines is the first step critical to successful prosecution. The second, and equally critical step, is the successful introduction of the rationale for sobriety checkpoints as well as the agency's adherence to the guidelines into court evidence and testimony. Failure to successfully do either will risk the loss of that case as well as public, media and judicial support.

When administered properly according to the judicial guidelines and the law enforcement agencies policies for officer and motorist safety, sobriety checkpoints are a safe and effective deterrent to impaired driving and are the ideal complement in our state's OVI enforcement efforts.