State to expand sobriety checkpoint program

California traffic safety officials will pump $8 million this coming year into an aggressive anti-drunken driving program with a controversial focus: sobriety checkpoints.

Armed with federal grants, police in 150 California cities are launching what the state’s Office of Traffic Safety chief says may be the most extensive checkpoint program in the country in 2010, increasing by nearly 50 percent the number of checkpoint operations statewide.

In doing so, police will be ratcheting up efforts on one of the most oft-debated tactics in the anti-drunken driving arsenal.

Commonly seen as traps for unsuspecting drivers leaving bars and restaurants, checkpoints in reality typically result in few drunken driving arrests, data show.

That’s by design, police say. Law enforcement agencies put out alerts to TV, radio and newspapers before they set up a checkpoint so that word hits the street before the orange cones do.

And, they say, they don’t mind that some restaurant managers now send text message warnings to each other when they hear a checkpoint has been set up in their area.

Police and traffic safety officials say they view sobriety checkpoints as a high-profile public relations campaign.

“It’s not about the number of arrests. It’s about the deterrent effect,” state traffic safety chief Chris Murphy said in launching what his office calls “The Year of the Checkpoint.”

Murphy said safety efforts are helping. Road deaths overall have dropped in California the last three years, including alcohol-involved crashes.

Still, about a quarter of road deaths in California are alcohol-related, data show. Alcohol-involved crashes killed 1,029 and injured 28,457 in the state in 2008.

The sight alone of a checkpoint is memorable, keeping some drivers from becoming complacent about the risks of drinking and driving, Murphy said.

Police cruisers, roof bars flashing, light up the night. A funnel of orange cones leads cars toward a row of officers waving flashlights.

Typically, police allow drivers a place to turn to avoid a checkpoint. But, police warn, agencies have “chase” cars ready to follow those drivers if they appear to be driving poorly.

“It is not running and gunning and taking a whole bunch of people to jail, but it’s worthwhile,” said Officer Jason Browning of the Folsom Police Department.

Sobriety checkpoints are arguably better at cornering people who drive without a license than people driving intoxicated.

The checkpoints draw heat nationally from the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant trade group that argues they are ineffective, and calls them a form of harassment that “threatens our customers and the cultural dining experience.”

Police should focus instead on going after the worst drunken drivers, those with multiple offenses, institute officials said.

Police agencies counter that checkpoints aren’t their sole focus. California agencies say they routinely conduct “saturation patrols,” where officers from several agencies join in a given area to search out and arrest drunken drivers.

Many of those efforts also are funded by federal grants through the state traffic safety office.

A spokesman for that office said the agency does not have a tally of how much is spent on that type of drunken driving enforcement, but that nearly $50 million in funds overall will be funneled to local governments and health agencies this year to combat drunken driving and its causes.

The relatively small number of arrests at checkpoints may make the state’s $8 million focus next year seem like a gamble. The city of Sacramento, in particular, has a lot at stake.

A new analysis from the state Office of Traffic Safety shows Sacramento rates highest among the state’s 13 largest cities in drunken driving injury crashes.

City officials say they are hoping the federal grant money for sobriety checkpoints will help them dig out of that hole.

State officials defend the increased funding for checkpoints by pointing to a 2002 report, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and overseen by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In that report, a task force of health officials reviewed all notable studies and gave sobriety checkpoints a strong endorsement as an effective tool for reducing alcohol-related road injuries.

But “there is no panacea, no magic bullet,” said task force chair Jonathan Fielding, head of public health for Los Angeles County.