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Status Report, Vol. 36, No. 6 | June 30, 2001 Subscribe

Deterring DWI starts with better detection methods

The purpose of detection programs isn't just to identify impaired drivers, confirm they have consumed illegal amounts of alcohol or other drugs, and remove them from the road. A truly successful detection system deters people from drinking and driving in the first place.

"Detecting impaired drivers is important to create deterrence, but it isn't easy to do," says Institute chief scientist Allan Williams. "Even when people have blood alcohol concentrations that are high enough to cause them to be significantly impaired, it can be difficult for experts and others to detect. This is especially true among people who drink regularly and heavily."

Improving the ability of law enforcement officers to accurately detect alcohol or other drugs in drivers and establish the basis for criminal prosecution was the subject of a workshop held by the Transportation Research Board's Committee on Alcohol, Other Drugs, and Transportation, of which Williams is chairman. As he and other participants note, the initial detection of impaired drivers and any follow-up procedures must be conducted without violating motorists' legal and constitutional rights.

Williams adds, "If people don't think there's much chance they'll be encountered by the police, or if they think their impairment isn't likely to be detected, or if it's detected they're not likely to be sanctioned, then there hardly will be any discouragement from driving while impaired."

Some of the committee's main suggestions include these:

  • Simplify state impaired driving laws. Make them uniform from state to state. These steps would reduce the chance that small procedural errors could be challenged in court.
  • Encourage the use of administrative license revocation or suspension, sanctions that bypass the criminal justice system.
  • Improve police efficiency by, for example, reducing paperwork requirements that might discourage officers from making arrests or divert resources from other needs. Target police patrols to the times and places favored by impaired drivers, and train officers to better recognize possible impairment.
  • Conduct extensive and well-publicized sobriety checkpoints. These have been shown to reduce crashes involving impaired driving. The committee calls for further research aimed at improving checkpoint effectiveness.
  • To help police make further judgments about drivers who have been stopped, increase the use of passive alcohol sensors, which can determine whether alcohol is present in the occupant compartments of vehicles. Also increase the use of the horizontal gaze nystagmus test, a method of examining drivers' eyes for signs of impairment.

As important as it is to learn what works to detect and deter impaired driving, nothing is possible without the support of the public, according to committee member James Hedlund, who summarizes the workshop proceedings: "Research can provide tools ... but the community must decide where and to what extent these tools are used."

Sobriety checkpoints aren’t used enough

A lack of public pressure and concern over limited resources keeps many states from using sobriety checkpoints, even though they are an effective deterrent.

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