Cover Story: Taking sobriety checkpoints to task

By Jeff Atkinson - bio l email

GASTONIA, NC (WBTV) - Police officers say they take drunk drivers off the street.  But, opponents with their own money at stake say sobriety checkpoints are a waste of tax dollars.

This weekend, millions of people will party, thousands will climb behind the wheel and drive.  And in our area dozens will probably be caught at sobriety checkpoints.

Now, a group says that practice targets the wrong people, misses most of the truly dangerous drivers and wastes your money.  They want the checkpoints stopped.

Few have ever taken to task the sobriety checkpoints we see pop up this time of year except for the group you're about to meet.

But before you write-off what they have to say hear what their argument is.

"It's sleek, powerful and efficient and this crime fighter is on North Carolina roads and coming to a city near you. If you're drinking and driving watch out for the BATmobile."

The ads for the Breath Alcohol Testing Mobile Unit (a-k-a BATmobile) definitely get your attention.

It's part of a highly visible presence of cops attacking drunk driving head on.

"Remember, it's Booze it and lose it."

The BATmobile is used when law enforcement conducts sobriety checkpoints statewide.  It's a effort requiring a lot of manpower and money.

Some question could it be better spent elsewhere?

"They simply aren't effective anymore," says Sarah Longwell of American Beverage Institute.  "They're not targeting the right people. And it's time we stopped wasting resources on them and we put them into what works."

The American Beverage Institute, a group that represents 8,000 restaurants that serve alcohol, came out this season calling on law enforcement to pull the plug on drunk driving checkpoints.

The ABI, which obviously has skin in the game, believes checkpoints target moderate drinkers instead of getting at the hard-core alcohol abusers.

The group says relatively few drunk drivers are caught at the checkpoints.  Checkpoints require a lot of police officers when those cops could be out on roving patrols catching dangerous drunk drivers, the group says.

"We don't want P.R. campaigns, high visibility checkpoints that make people feel like law enforcement is out there looking for drunk drivers. We want real enforcement that is actually taking drunk drivers off the roads," says Longwell.

Jeff Clark is patrol sergeant for Gastonia Police Dept.  He agrees that roving patrols nab more drunk drivers than checkpoints but says they're worth it.

"If we get one drunk driver off the road and keep from getting one person injured or killed you can't put a price on that I don't think," says Clark.

Gastonia P.D. has had three checkpoints in the last two weeks and will run several more this weekend.

They're effective, Clark says, because they're visible and get people to think.

"I think they scare people. And the people that they scare I think are the people that are thinking about getting out drinking and driving. And I want those people to be scared," says Clark.

Of the 1,346 people killed in traffic crashes last year in North Carolina, 394 are directly linked to drunk driving.

Mecklenburg county ranks among the top counties in the state for percentage of total injuries and fatalities from drunk driving.

Charlotte's trying out something new this year for those who may have been celebrating too much.

AAA Carolinas is sponsoring something it's calling "Tow to Go."

If somebody's had too much to drink and has no other alternative, the individual can call and have his car towed home.

It must originate in Mecklenburg county, the car will be towed up to 50 miles.

It's free and runs through Sunday, January 2nd.

Call 1-800-AAA-HELP.

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