November brings us to the onset of the holiday season. And the holiday season essentially begins and ends with two big nights of drinking: the night before Thanksgiving and New Year's Eve.
The night before Thanksgiving has become one of the biggest drinking nights of the year. College students are home from class and most workers do not have to work the next day. That allows many people who otherwise would be home to head out to a bar. Bars notice a discernible up tick in business and most police departments notice a discernible up tick in alcohol-related driving incidents.
Stopping It at the Source
As every cop and almost every American knows, there is no doubt that alcohol consumption increases the risk of a motor vehicle crash. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) lists alcohol impairment as a primary factor in traffic fatalities. In addition to unnecessary loss of life, drunk driving also leads to property damage, impeded traffic flow, and a strain on the resources of police, fire, and emergency medical personnel.
Drunk driving is an offense that crosses all social and economic lines. Research indicates that 20 to 25 percent of all U.S. drivers operated their vehicle while drunk over the past year. Roadside surveys have shown three percent of drivers to be legally impaired at any given time; this number is certainly higher during the holiday season. Research shows that about half of impaired drivers got drunk in a bar; the other half got drunk in a residential setting. This statistic can be a good starting point if you want to use education as a tool against drunk driving.
Educate bar owners about the consequences of over-serving patrons. Several courts have held bars responsible for patrons who have left the establishment drunk.
To trace drunk drivers back to the source of their inebriation, ask drunk drivers about where they were served. If a certain establishment is repeatedly mentioned as a location that over-serves, have a sit-down with the manager of the bar. You can also place undercover officers in the bar to monitor if the bartenders are willfully over-serving.
You can also enlist bar personnel to help stop the problem at its source. Train alcohol beverage servers in techniques that slow alcohol consumption and ask them to promote the consumption of food. Servers must understand that a blood alcohol reading as low as .05 percent can diminish motor skills (this level can be attained in as few as two or three drinks in some adults). Teach servers to identify patrons who have been over-served and advise them of techniques to handle these customers; these techniques include ending service and arranging for alternate transportation such as a taxi.
Statistics show that about half of drunk drivers get drunk in someone's home.
To combat this problem, launch an education campaign to advise hosts of their civil liability in allowing someone to leave a party intoxicated. Expand this education to include the consequences of allowing underage drinking.
When identifying individuals with a high potential for driving drunk, pay extra attention to previous offenders. Repeat drunk drivers constitute a small percentage of the overall driving population, but they are disproportionately responsible for alcohol-related crashes. Research shows that somewhere between 33 and 75 percent of drivers arrested for drunk driving have been charged with a previous offense.
If you identify a repetitive drunk driver, take steps to monitor this ticking time bomb. Request that the judge impose the sanction of a restricted driver's license, which only allows the person to operate a car when necessary to get to and from work; this would restrict driving to mostly daylight hours. Also, request an identifying bumper sticker to be placed on the repeat offender's vehicle.
In some jurisdictions, the police have received permission to confiscate the license plates off of a repetitive drunk's car. This drastically increases the chance the vehicle will be stopped if operated on the roadway. In extreme cases, a global positioning system can be placed on the offender's car so police are alerted when he is driving during a restricted time. Also, a drunk driver may be confined to his home and monitored with an ankle bracelet.
A drunk driver's vehicle can also be impounded or immobilized during the period of suspension. Though this response will probably do little to deter a drunk from driving, it is one way to ensure the person completes an alcohol treatment program.[PAGEBREAK]
The fact of the matter is that any drunken driving reduction program based solely on enforcement is bound to fail. Apprehending and properly processing a drunk driver is a huge strain on limited law enforcement resources. Certainly at any time there are many more drunk drivers on the road than there are police officers, who are also saddled with competing priorities that do not allow total concentration on the drunk driving effort.
Some experts estimate that police only apprehend about one percent of drunk drivers. To formulate an effective drunk driving reduction program, ascertain the extent of the problem and try to locate "hot-spots" where minimum resources can best be deployed.
Do the research. Find out how many alcohol-related crashes occur in the jurisdiction. Has the number of alcohol-related crashes increased or decreased in recent years? What accounts for these changes? Is alcohol the sole cause or are there other major factors such as weather, seat belt use, or roadway design? What is the average blood alcohol concentration of the drivers involved in the crashes? What specific motor vehicle offense (speeding, disregard of a traffic signal, seat belt) is the precursor offense to the alcohol-related crashes? You should also try to isolate the days of the week and specific hours when most crashes occur.
Answering these questions will help you decide if sobriety checkpoints will reduce drunk driving incidents. These checkpoints are much more effective when specific locations of crashes are identified. Sobriety checkpoints are labor intensive but have been shown to reduce alcohol-related crashes by 15 percent to 25 percent. Usually there are legal ramifications for setting up a checkpoint; the police will obviously need to consult counsel.
If specific offenses are determined to be the causes of crashes, a roving patrol may be more effective. Either way, you should receive specialized training on identifying impaired drivers. Some research indicates that officers are not that good at detecting drunk drivers; one report found that police failed to detect signs of impairment in 50 percent of legally drunk drivers.
Educate the Public
Get a sense of the general public's concern about drunk driving. Many times there is a cultural perception that drunk driving is not a major problem. Some communities perceive alcohol as a form of entertainment and driving as a form of entertainment. When these two forms of entertainment meet, the results are deadly.
You can change this perception by engaging in a public awareness campaign. Generate estimates of the total economic cost to the community for alcohol-related crashes. Besides the raw number of those injured or killed in alcohol-related crashes, this estimate can include property damage, medical costs, insurance premium increases, and lost wages. A complete picture of the true cost of drunk driving will begin to change the perception in some communities.
Look internally to see if the drunk driving arrest process can be expedited. Traditionally, processing a drunk driving arrest is a cumbersome process, where many procedural hurdles must be overcome. Get help from special police officers or civilians to assist in the arrest process thereby keeping more sworn officers on the street.
Saturate the Area
There is no drunk driving arrest program that could ever net every drunk. What you must strive to do is create a perception among drunk drivers that they will be apprehended. Most drunk drivers realize there is a very low chance of apprehension; general enforcement is a very small deterrent. You must create a perception of targeted enforcement.
To do this, saturate the area where a number of bars are located. Officers on foot or bicycle patrol are an omnipresent reminder to drinkers that the police are nearby. Set up field stations around bars where breath tests are given for free. This will enhance the image of the police and warn drunks that you are serious about enforcement.
Create a saturation patrol on the arteries leading to and from major drinking locations. The officers assigned to the saturation patrol should be proactive, stopping as many cars as possible. This will create a primary deterrence to the person being stopped but also create an atmosphere of secondary deterrence as other motorists drive by and realize their chance of getting stopped is high.
Officers on the saturation patrol should be armed with preliminary breath testing devices. Though the results of these devices are not typically admissible in court, they will aid officers in making quick determinations about intoxicated drivers. The devices are small, portable, and easy to operate.
Enforcement should be a small part of the overall effort to reduce drunk driving. Embark on a year-long campaign to show the deadly effects of impaired driving. Only by changing the cultural perceptions and the social norms of a community will you be able to truly impact drunk driving.
Det. Joseph Petrocelli is a 20-year veteran of New Jersey law enforcement. You can comment on this article, suggest other topics, or reach the author by e-mailing POLICE Magazine at Editor@PoliceMag.com.