In 2017, 233 people died from alcohol-related auto accidents on Colorado roadways. Researchers found that highly-publicized sobriety checkpoint campaigns reduce deaths such as these by 17 percent.

Campaigns Battle Drunken, Deadly Summer Months

“No, officer. I haven’t been drinking.”

The question you just answered usually gets asked only if a police officer has a reason to ask it: driving erratically or swerving between lanes, for instance. But today, the only reason the Colorado State Patrol officer is asking is that you picked the right road, during the right time of day, during a holiday season with a highly publicized sobriety enforcement campaign.

The State Patrol and Sheriff’s Departments, in conjunction with the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT), recently wrapped up the annual “The Heat Is On” campaign for the week leading into the Fourth of July holiday. It’s one of 14 seasonal and event-centered blitzes of anti-drunk driving ads, widespread sobriety checkpoints, and hundreds of DUI arrests.

CDOT will spend about $11.1 million on “The Heat Is On” and other enhanced enforcement campaigns in 2018-2019, down from $13.9 million in 2017-2018, according to its annual budget statement. The department makes the most out of its relationships with television stations and newspapers to place free public service ads, so most of the funds pay for police overtime.

Is it worth it? The unwarranted intrusions on your privacy, taxpayer dollars spent producing flashy ads, and covering police payroll for a “sting” that every driver — lush or teetotaler — should know is coming?

Decide for yourself, but the answer should be an easy and overwhelming, “Yes.”

Deadliest, Drunkest Driving Months

If you were deciding when to stage sobriety checkpoints based only on the need to reduce serious and deadly Colorado car accidents, then summertime would be the best choice.

June, July, August, and September were the deadliest and drunkest months on Colorado roadways in 2017, according to an analysis of statistics from the Colorado Department of Transportation

Here’s a monthly breakdown of the state’s 648 roadway deaths in 2017, and the corresponding 233 of them in which alcohol or drug impairment was a suspected factor.

  • June – 73 total deaths, 19 caused in some part by impairment.
  • July – 67 total deaths, 30 impaired.
  • August – 63 total, 28 impaired.
  • September – 60 deaths, 29 impaired.
  • November – 57 deaths, 23 impaired.
  • May – 56 deaths, 25 impaired.
  • October – 54 deaths, 19 impaired.
  • April – 50 deaths, 20 impaired.
  • December – 50 deaths, 10 impaired.
  • March – 45 deaths, 15 impaired.
  • January – 43 deaths, 18 impaired.
  • February – 30 deaths, 8 impaired.

Who is dying on Colorado roads?

Colorado death rates for accidents involving drunk drivers are lower than the national averages, according to analysis from The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The health agency analyzed data from 2012 and found that, statistically speaking, only 2.5 people per every 100,000 residents died in alcohol-related accidents compared to 3.3 per 100,000 nationwide. Among Coloradans 21-34 years old, about 5.6 lives were lost per every 100,000 residents compared to the national 6.7 average. The rates dropped by more than half here and nationally for drivers 35 and older.

Only 3.9 men per 100,000 Coloradans died compared to 5.2 per 100,000 in the rest of the U.S. Women are more careful about drinking and driving than men, it seems. Counting women only, 1.1 per 100,000 residents died in alcohol-related accidents compared to 1.5 per 100,000 men across the country.

Lots of Publicity, Lots of Arrests

The state’s Memorial Day-centered DUI enforcement period, May 25-May 29, netted 300 arrests as the State Patrol and 102 other law-enforcement agencies led by CDOT set up DUI checkpoints across the state, according to a CDOT press release published by the Sterling Journal-Advocate newspaper. The agencies caught 332 allegedly impaired drivers during the same period in 2017. Colorado Springs authorities arrested 25 drivers, Denver Police arrested 22, and Aurora Police arrested 17. Sterling Police, Logan County Sheriff’s Office, and State Patrol Troop 3B in Sterling reported no arrests.

Col. Matthew Packard, State Patrol chief, said the arrests are an ongoing reminder of the dangers imposed by impaired drivers. He said the special enforcement campaigns help to stop impaired drivers from putting themselves and others in danger and in so doing potentially save lives.

Colorado’s blood-alcohol limit for a “driving while ability impaired” charge is 0.05 percent, whereas drivers with a blood-alcohol content of 0.08 percent can be charged with “driving under the influence”, CDOT said. First-time DUI offenders can face penalties of one year in jail, license suspension, and fines in the thousands of dollars.

Ads Creating a Deterrent?

Police agencies across the state arrest an average of 77 allegedly impaired drivers, CDOT said. You can conclude then that the 300 arrests over five days is a statistical decrease from the 385 that may be arrested in any other five-day period. You can then speculate that maybe the advertising campaigns kept at least 85 potential impaired drivers off of the roads and out of police snares. Not all impaired drivers get caught, so the actual amount of partiers who wised up and avoided driving would have to be much higher.

Academic Analysis: Checkpoints Save Lives

Nearly 48 Coloradans alive today owe their lives to 2017’s “The Heat Is On” campaigns, statistically speaking, if some research published by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is valid.

Countermeasures That Work”, a treatise by five transportation researchers, contends that sobriety checkpoints, combined with widespread publicity campaigns, reduce alcohol-related crashes by 17 percent, and all crashes by 10-15 percent. Other research conducted by The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention place the reduction in alcohol-related deaths at a still-significant 9 percent. The campaigns also reduce the number of people who test positive for alcohol once stopped.

The five researchers place highly publicized sobriety checkpoint campaigns at the top of their list of effective ways for states to reduce alcohol-related road fatalities because they show consistent and substantial results. Other countermeasures, such as stiff laws against driving while impaired and well-enforced age restrictions for drinking are also effective.

The operations get additional praise because they’re proven to reduce alcohol-related accidents in high-risk populations such as drivers 21-34 years old and men in general.

Despite their effectiveness, the checkpoints are authorized in only 38 states and the District of Columbia and only a few of those states use them on a regular basis. Sixteen states conduct the campaigns on a weekly basis. The main reason police agencies don’t conduct the operations more often is their cost and lack of personnel.

Perceived Risk of Arrest a Deterrent

The checkpoints deter people from driving after drinking by increasing drivers’ perceived risk of arrest and changing their behavior. To be effective in this, the operations need to be highly visible, well-publicized, and conducted regularly as part of an ongoing campaign, the researchers wrote. If they believe they are likely to get caught and punished then they will avoid driving while impaired.

State Anticipates Season’s Higher Risks

CDOT Safety Director Darrell Lingk said the state’s safety agencies are addressing the season’s relative risks.

“We see an alarming trend of increasing road fatalities heading into the summer months, with 31 percent of all 2017 Colorado road fatalities occurring in June, July and August. … Some people think getting behind the wheel after one or two drinks is acceptable, but that isn’t the case. Even a few alcoholic drinks can impair your ability to drive. It’s simply not worth the risk.”

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