Remarks by Steven R. Chealander, Board Member
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security
Texas Senate
on Senate Bill 59
Sobriety Checkpoints
Austin, Texas

April 4 , 2007


Good morning Chairman Carona and members of the Committee on Transportation and Homeland Security.  It is my pleasure to be here in Austin and talk about the National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations for addressing hard core drinking drivers.

The National Transportation Safety Board is an independent Federal agency charged by Congress to investigate transportation accidents, determine their probable cause, and make safety recommendations to prevent their recurrence.  The recommendations that arise from our investigations and safety studies are our most important product.  The Safety Board cannot mandate implementation of these recommendations.  However, in our 40-year history, organizations and government bodies have adopted more than 80 percent of our recommendations.

The Alcohol-Highway Safety Problem

The Safety Board has recognized for many years that motor vehicle crashes are responsible for more deaths than crashes in all other transportation modes combined.  More than 90 percent of all transportation related deaths each year result from highway crashes.  Each year, about 40 percent of highway deaths nationwide are alcohol-related.  Alcohol-related fatalities increased from 16,694 in 2004 to 16,885 in 2005, and the number of alcohol-related fatalities remains substantially higher than in 1999, when approximately 15,790 people died in alcohol-related crashes.

The emotional toll on families is staggering, but impaired driving also has a financial impact.  According to calculations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the lifetime cost to society for each fatality is over $977,000; alcohol-related crashes cost society billions of dollars.  While the affected individual covers some of these costs, overall, NHTSA estimates that those not directly involved in crashes pay for nearly three-quarters of all crash costs, primarily through insurance premiums, taxes, and travel delay.  Clearly, much needs to be done to reduce this ongoing tragedy.

The Hard Core Drinking Driver

The Safety Board is particularly concerned with hard core drinking drivers, who are involved in about 54 percent of alcohol-related fatalities.  The Board defines hard core drinking drivers as individuals who drive with a blood alcohol concentration (BAC) of 0.15 percent or greater, or who are arrested for driving while intoxicated within 10 years of a prior driving while impaired (DWI) arrest.  From 1983 through 2005, more than 183,000 people died in crashes involving hard core drinking drivers.  Most experts agree that impaired drivers persist in their behavior because these drivers believe that they will not be caught and/or convicted.  That perception is based on reality.  NHTSA estimates that on average, an individual makes about 1,000 drinking driving trips before being arrested.

In 1984, the Safety Board completed a safety study that included recommendations to reduce the problem of repeat DWI offenders.  Since those recommendations were issued, all States have made efforts to address the alcohol-related highway safety problem, making considerable progress in detecting, arresting, and adjudicating drinking drivers.  However, the measures taken and the degree of implementation of the Safety Board’s 1984 recommendations by States and localities have not been uniform, and alcohol-related crashes continue to claim thousands of lives. 

In light of the thousands of deaths still resulting from these crashes, the Safety Board focused on hard core drinking drivers in 2000.  In that report, the Board examined a variety of countermeasures used by the States to identify which of these actions have been effective, and recommended a model program to reduce hard core drinking driving.  The problem of hard core drinking drivers is complex; no single countermeasure by itself appears to reduce recidivism and crashes sufficiently.  We need a comprehensive system of prevention, apprehension, sanction, and treatment to reduce the crashes, injuries, and fatalities caused by these drivers. 

Sobriety Checkpoints

Sobriety checkpoints have long been recognized as a key component of an effective impaired driving enforcement program.  Indeed, the Safety Board first recommended that Texas and other States institute the use of sobriety checkpoints more than 20 years ago, in 1984.

Many DWI offenders persist in their behavior because their perception of being arrested and penalized is low.  Focusing principally on those relatively few DWI offenders who have already been apprehended will not likely achieve significant reductions in impaired driving and alcohol-related crashes.  States must take measures to convince motorists that there is a strong likelihood that they will be caught, thereby deterring impaired driving before an arrest.

Well publicized sobriety checkpoints are a key component of deterrence because they increase the perception among drivers who potentially would drive impaired that they will be caught.  Since every motorist is potentially subject to being stopped, sobriety checkpoints preclude impaired drivers from assuming that they can avoid detection merely by driving cautiously.  Sobriety checkpoints also afford police the opportunity to contact greater numbers of motorists than during typical patrols, and demonstrate their jurisdiction’s commitment to reducing drunk driving. 

The effectiveness of sobriety checkpoints was documented in Tennessee’s “Checkpoint Tennessee” program of the 1990’s.  Localities throughout Tennessee conducted sobriety checkpoints for a year.  These were accompanied by extensive television, radio and print media coverage, both before and after the checkpoints.  A subsequent analysis of the effects of the program on traffic deaths revealed a 20.4 percent reduction over the projected number of impaired driving fatal crashes that would have occurred without the checkpoint program.  That translated into a reduction of 9 fatal crashes each month in Tennessee.  The effect was still present 21 months later.  Further, public opinion surveys conducted throughout the project indicated that over 90 percent of drivers supported the program.

Some have questioned the constitutionality of sobriety checkpoints.  However, the Supreme Court of the United States upheld their use in 1990 (Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz), on the grounds that preventing alcohol related crashes and deaths outweighs the “slight” intrusion on drivers who are stopped.  The Supreme Court rejected arguments that checkpoints are a violation of the 4th Amendment.

Sobriety checkpoints are in widespread use throughout the nation.  Currently, 38 States and the District of Columbia authorize the use of sobriety checkpoints.  Senate Bill 59 will authorize, but not mandate, local police departments to use this very effective impaired driving countermeasure.

Conclusion

In 2005, almost 45 percent of highway fatalities in Texas involved alcohol, and more than 54 percent of alcohol-related fatalities involved a hard core drinking driver.  Sobriety checkpoints are a proven measure to reduce impaired driving crashes, injuries, and fatalities.  Sobriety checkpoints played a major role in reducing alcohol-related fatalities from over 28,000 per year in 1980 to less than 17,000 in 2005.  Texas needs to authorize, support, and regularly use sobriety checkpoints with the other measures included in the Safety Board’s model program.  As evidence of the importance of sobriety checkpoints and the other model program elements, the Board has placed the hard core drinking driving recommendation on its “Most Wanted” list of safety recommendations.  The Safety Board urges the Texas legislature and this committee to enact Senate Bill 59.

Thank you again for allowing the Safety Board to testify about this important problem.  I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.