Why Drunk Driving Checkpoints Should Be Celebrated, Not Avoided

Why Drunk Driving Checkpoints Should Be Celebrated, Not Avoided

A Florida defense lawyer and libertarian has become a YouTube sensation by recommending that drivers pulled over during checkpoint stops to detect drunk drivers do not open their windows or speak to police officers. At last count, Warren Redlich’s video has more than two million views. Instead, he recommends that they display a sign, which he has made, indicating why they are politely refusing to cooperate.

In the United States, lawyers are free to give advice about avoiding arrests. But maybe it is time to remind ourselves that drunk driving is not a game. There are scientifically based public health reasons for why municipalities put up checkpoints. It is time for the public—and legislatures—to rebuke Redlich’s cynical advice.

Not too long along, drunk driving was a game. For most of the 20th century, it took a blood alcohol level of 0.15%—nearly double today’s level of 0.08%—to possibly get a conviction for driving under the influence (DUI). This was true even when the drunk driver had killed or maimed someone. In most cases, those arrested were allowed to plead down to more minor offenses, such as a moving violation.

Why was this so? For one thing, in response to the Prohibition experiment of the 1920s, the pendulum swung away from seeing alcohol-related behaviors as crimes. Aggressive advertising by the alcohol industry equated drinking with the good life. And, especially after World War II, big, fast cars became cultural icons. Drunk driving became a rite of passage for many young men.

The results were devastating. When the U.S. government finally issued its first report on the subject in 1968, it estimated that 25,000 Americans died annually due to drunk driving. Hundreds of thousands of others were injured.

Yet drunk driving remained a sort of open secret, never condoned but never really condemned. Prosecutors and judges, many of whom themselves occasionally drove drunk, told victims and their families they were “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” Drunk driving crashes were unfortunate “accidents.” Victims were instructed to “get on with your lives.”

It was not until the 1980s that such attitudes became culturally unacceptable. In 1978, an upstate New York journalist named Doris Aiken founded RID (Remove Intoxicated Drivers) after she learned that a habitual drunk driver who had killed two local children was not being prosecuted. Two years later, Candy Lightner founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) when her daughter Cari was killed by a drunk driver with several previous DUI convictions. How could such lawlessness go unnoticed and unpunished?

Aiken, Lightner and thousands of other activists—most of whom had lost a relative or a friend—transformed the status of drunk driving. Between 1980 and 1985, states passed over 700 news laws that increased penalties and closed loopholes. Eventually, all 50 states raised the drinking age to 21 and lowered the acceptable blood alcohol level to 0.08%

More importantly, perhaps, these activists also changed the culture of drunk driving. The old rite of passage had become culturally unacceptable. Phrases like “Friends Don’t Let Friends Drive Drunk” and “designated driver” entered both the lexicon and Americans’ lives.

Since 1985, several other strategies have been pursued to lower drunk driving rates. These include the use of mandatory interlock devices, which force individuals convicted of drunk driving to blow sober air into a Breathalyzer for their cars to start. Interlocks lower recidivism rates by two-thirds. And 38 states use checkpoints, in which police may stop cars that they believe are committing infractions—such as driving erratically or with broken headlights—and test drivers for evidence of alcohol. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled approved of the use of checkpoints in 1990. And checkpoints work, deterring drunk driving and lowering alcohol-related crashes by 9%. All of the combined interventions to combat drunk driving have been remarkably successful, helping to lower the annual death rate to 10,000 in 2013.

Under the rubric of civil liberties, Redlich rejects the use of roadblocks and urges drivers to do so as well. He has reviewed the laws of twelve states and created signs that he urges drivers to put in their windows if they are pulled over. They read, in part, “I remain silent. No searches. I want my lawyer.” As Redlich hoped, police are letting such individuals pass through checkpoints untested.

Is this an effective legal strategy? Perhaps. But it is meant to protect people doing something dangerous and, depending on their blood alcohol level, illegal. Moreover, while it may protect the liberties of drinking drivers, it ignores the rights of sober drivers and pedestrians whose lives are at risk when drunk drivers take to the road.

So I urge state legislatures to pass new laws, if necessary, making refusal to participate at a checkpoint an automatic punishment. Most states already have laws that suspend the licenses of drivers who refuse Breathalyzer testing in the hopes of mitigating their guilt.

“Innocent until proven guilty” is a bulwark of this country’s legal system. But civil disobedience done for the sole purpose of fostering illegal behavior is loathsome and an insult to the memories of millions of people killed by drunk drivers.

Originally published on forbes.com on February 19, 2015.

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