Statistics show that more than 17,000 people die and half a million are injured every year from an entirely preventable cause of death, alcohol-related crashes. That's one death every half hour.
Research shows that the best ways to reduce these numbers are high-profile enforcement efforts, especially regularly conducted sobriety checkpoints. Recent studies found such checkpoints can cut the death toll by 20 percent.
On Friday night, March 30, through the early morning hours of Saturday, March 31, over 25 West Virginia State Police Trooper set up a large sobriety checkpoint on U.S. 119, just south of the Danville/Madison exit, stopping motorists in both the north and south bound lanes.
“If we get one drunk driver off the road we consider it a success,” said District Commander for Troop 5, District III, First Sgt. Christopher Grant Wiles with the West Virginia State Police.
Wiles district includes both Boone and Lincoln counties.
“We want the public to know that we are out here to try and combat this serious problem,” he said. “This is our first sobriety checkpoint this year, but we will be conducting others and cracking down on this problem is one of our priorities.”
Wiles said sobriety checkpoints' most important value is deterrence.
“Regularly scheduled sobriety checkpoints have been shown to reduce the number of crashes and, ultimately, the number of tragedies, largely through deterrence,” he explained. “A little bit of publicity can go a long way. My philosophy is I want the media there; that's how the message gets out. If you have the checkpoint, everybody knows about it. It's a deterrent and it is valuable tool.”
Sobriety checkpoints have been used for the last 25 years in the United States, withstanding several legal challenges. But in 10 states (Idaho, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Oregon, Rhode Island, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming), legislatures have decided to ban sobriety checkpoints altogether, and one state chooses not to conduct them (Alaska). But in the 39 states that use them, and statistics show that they are a deterrent to drunk driving.
Statistics show that alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the United States have decreased about 2 percent a year for the past 15 years in a row. Several factors contributed to the 15-year decline in alcohol-related fatalities, including alcohol-safety legislation, increased penalties, and advocacy groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), but sobriety checkpoints have remained a constant enforcement component of DWI prevention.
“We believe these checkpoints play a vital role in protecting public safety,” Wiles said. “We’ve received a lot of positive comments; they mostly appreciate you out there.”
Impaired driving causes more injuries, deaths, and property damage in most communities than illegal drugs, assaults, and robberies. Thus, sobriety checkpoints, as an integral part of all enforcement efforts, proactively deter people from driving impaired. Most individuals who drive under the influence are not incorrigible criminals, or even hardened alcoholics, according to two recent studies, which means there is a high likelihood they will respond to the deterrent effect of high-profile enforcement efforts such as sobriety checkpoints.
There's another advantage of sobriety checkpoints: they can detect other crimes besides impaired driving.
“We have caught drivers with illegal drugs, we have caught fugitives from justice and many other types of crimes while conducting these checkpoints,” Wiles added.
A few years ago in Beckley, West Virginia, officers were about to shut down their mini-checkpoint when they observed a woman driver who was being abducted by a kidnapper. The officers arrested the man, who apparently intended to rape and kill her, it was reported.
MADD has made the increased use of sobriety checkpoints one of its top public awareness priorities.
A new bill in the Senate aims to crack down on deadly DUI offenders by making it easier for prosecutors to convict them.
Senator Corey Palumbo (D- Kanawha) introduced it this week in hopes to help victims' families find closure.
"It helps them properly with the grieving process to secure a conviction for the one who caused it," Palumbo said.
The bill would take away several loopholes in language that make it harder to convict, including a phrase that makes prosecutors prove drunk drivers acted in reckless disregard for others' safety.
"Those additional steps were preventing convictions from being secured," Palumbo said.
Deana Spaulding lost her 14-year-old daughter, Andrea Bailes, to a drunk driver in Huntington a little more than a year ago.
Since then, she's made it her mission to lobby for stricter DUI laws and hopes to see the new bill pass.
"No one should deal with the loss of a loved one just because someone else made wrong decisions," she said. "The law needs to protect innocent people."
The drunk driver who killed her daughter also was killed at the accident, but Spaulding wants to see the bill passed on behalf of other families.
"I think they would feel a little bit of peace knowing that they're behind bars and can't hurt someone else," she said.
Research supports ongoing sobriety checkpoint programs for local law enforcement agencies as well as large, high-visibility media campaigns to make the public aware of such programs. Through the combination of public awareness, community support, and stepped-up enforcement efforts in the form of sobriety checkpoints, police can help reduce the unconscionably high annual toll of 17,000 dead and a half-million injured.