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Sobriety checkpoints under attack in AB 1389

David Ragland, adjunct professor emeritus of epidemiology, School of Public Health | June 15, 2011

With the passage of Assembly Bill 1389 in the General Assembly and its imminent consideration by the State Senate, I feel compelled to set out a few facts that may have been lost in the discussion.

The bill’s sponsor, Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa), and other supporters of the proposal argue that the state’s sobriety checkpoint program is specifically targeting undocumented persons by siting checkpoints in heavily Latino areas and unfairly impounding vehicles for driver license violations.

Checkpoint locations are based on the degree of DUI violations and crashes. These can be easily tracked now, thanks to our recently launched crash mapping Web site for California,

The second argument states that because there are relatively few DUI arrests, the checkpoints are not truly targeting DUI offenders. Quite the opposite. A comprehensive checkpoint program such as the one run by our California agencies combines education with enforcement: by raising motorists’ awareness of the risk of arrest for DUI, they prevent DUI from happening.

Study after study has shown that this approach saves lives and dollars. They reduce DUI fatalities by, on average, 20 percent. In California, that translates into more than 300 lives saved each year.

Another argument states that it is unfair to target unlicensed drivers, and that doing so imposes an unfair economic burden on people who are already struggling. We recognize the importance of balancing personal freedom with enforcement of rules to protect the public’s health. That is why it is so crucial that people understand the seriousness of driving without a license.

There is nothing wrong if sobriety checkpoints find people who are “only” driving without a license.

According to “Unlicensed to Kill,” a definitive study of the problem published by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, from 1993 to 1999, an average of a little more than 8,000 people were killed each year in driving-without-a-license crashes. That’s 20 percent of all fatal crashes. (By comparison, DUI drivers are involved in 32 percent.)

Compared with licensed drivers, unlicensed drivers are 4.9 times more likely to be involved in a fatal crash; 3.7 times more likely to drive while impaired; and 4.4 times more likely to be in hit-and-run crashes.

Studies have shown that checkpoints help remove unlicensed drivers from the road and save lives. That is why our center applied to help administer the grants for the California program. DWL is a huge problem, and one that is growing. It’s time we raised public awareness and did the same for DWL that Mothers Against Drunk Driving and others did for DUI.

Here are some maps that show dui crashes, checkpoints and Hispanic population percentages:

checkpoint maps and dui crashes and hispanic population concentrations

second sobriety cp map

3rd scp map

4th scp map


Comments to “Sobriety checkpoints under attack in AB 1389

  1. Many drivers have their rights violated at these DUI checkpoints. People need to know their local laws ahead of time, so they know what to do in these situations, especially if they are unfairly arrested and have to fight DUI charges afterwards.

  2. Once the director of traffic in Fresno ask me what to said to a mother that have lost a son in a traffic accident which involved an unlicensed driver. First, that many people with a license – including police officers – are involved on this kind of tragedies. Second, tell them that was because the system do not allow them to be licensed.

    The answer to the city budget seems to be the check points revenues in the millions of dollars, but that is not the way to solve problems. The same year in which Fresno was recognized to have more check points that any other municipality in the nation, register at the same time the 16 place in fatalities with DD involved. It is a shame that people accept such violation of their rights, in exchange for “safety.” Clarification: Any body can get car insurance, even without license.

  3. To YoungSinatra,
    Your moniker fits your comment. How many of your friends and acquaintants have been been killed by unlicensed and/or drunks drivers? I pay my fees to have the privilege to drive and if you want the same privilege you must also pay for it, poor or not. And before you jump up and down I need to inform you that I came from those poor neighborhoods. Those same places that have a high crime rate including lots of drunk and unlicensed drivers. Get a Clue……….

  4. AB1389 is the best legislation I have ever seen in California. Police departments only use (roadblocks) that’s what they really are, to steal poor peoples cars. It takes $500 to $3000 or more to get a car out of impound after all fees etc. The punishment does not fit the crime. If they are going to have check points there should be a maximum impound fee of $125 total to get a vehical out of impound including police department fees.

  5. On November 16, 2010 my son was killed by an unlicensed driver. He hit him and trying to escape drove over him 3 times. (foeward, back, forward because he couldn’t get by). Ironically this drivers car was impounded on June 14, 2010 when he was caught driving the wrong way down a one way street, driving without a license and driving without insurance. He signed over the title of the car (which he owned and had been driving for 3 years)to a friend who had it out of impound the next day and gave it right back to him. The DA’s office in San Francisco allowed him to plead to the lesser offense of driving the wrong way down a one way street and dropped the driving without a license charge and driving without insurance. He kept driving until he killed my son.

    In California 4% of the drivers are unlicensed (just unlicensed, no supsension, no revocation). They cause 25-30% of all the traffic fatalities. David Ragland’s comments are based on a national level at 20% which should still evoke a cry of horror from everyone. But to ever wrote the reply above what difference does it make if the program is profiatblew to a city. If anything they should be using those profits to expand the program and a bill should be before the assembly and senater calling for these cars to be confiscated. Obviously impoundment is not doing the job.

    We entered into two wars for some lunatics killed 3000 people. Before we are done we well have spent over 3 trillion dollars Yet we don’t take seriously a problem that kills 3 times as many people every year and costs no money at all. Are we insane?

  6. This is an important subject – and I appreciate Professor Ragland’s emphasis on putting safety first. Making more of this data available more publicly (can the maps be enlarged) may help to ensure that checkpoints are in fact targeting drunk drivers. (As an aside, that’s the purpose of Asm. Allen’s bill, which by my cursory read merely codifies standards the Office of Traffic Safety grants already adhere to – but which some local departments do not in their own checkpoint operations.)

    However, Professor Ragland seems to be avoiding the serious criticism of the program leveled by UC Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting and reported in California Watch, the NY Times, and the PBS Newshour:

    The California Watch investigation shows how checkpoints have exploded as a way to provide easy tax money to local enforcement agencies and big bucks to impound companies. Even though often funded by the federal government rather than localities, checkpoints are expensive, and we are all paying for them one way or another. One of the communities here shown to be an example of effective checkpoints – Moreno Valley – California Watch found that police average 38 officers per checkpoint! All collecting overtime. Is that really how we want our tax dollars used?

    (Also, Moreno Valley was investigated by California’s Office of Traffic Safety after complaints were filed by community members about checkpoints that violated the legal requirements in Ingersoll v. Palmer.)

    The other issue that Professor Ragland avoids is the reality of who is being affected by these checkpoints that are not really focusing on DUIs. In Moreno Valley, most of the people whose cars were impounded were the unauthorized immigrant workers who pick our fruits and vegetables. This amounts to a tax – sometimes as much as 15% of a worker’s annual income – on top of the burden of working in the fields without wage or workplace protections afforded other workers.

    And of course, the AAA study is based primarily on data form the mid-90s, when all immigrant workers were able to get licenses. Is there more recent data on licensure in California? While only speculating, I’d expected that the share of the population without licenses has probably risen and that the incidence of dangerous driving in that group may have declined relative to the early 90s, when anybody who drove without a license probably was a very dangerous driver.

    Everyone is for safety on our roads, and thanks are due to Professor Ragland for his efforts to improve safety. Though courts and law enforcement have stated that saturation patrols are much more effective than checkpoints when it comes to DUI deterrence, if checkpoints can be shown to contribute to safety, then Asm. Allen’s bill seems like a sensible step to ensure that everyone is clear about what Ingersoll requires. I agree with Professor Ragland that we should look at the facts about what’s happening at checkpoints. But that goes both ways, and we have to look at the financial interests and the xenophobia and politics that are driving them in some communities. And if we want to really reduce DWL, then we have to address workable solutions that make us safer – like restoring opportunities for immigrants to legalize their status and get a drivers license.

    • I appreciate read with care’s thoughtful comments about safety on the roads. Interestingly, he cites Moreno Valley as an example to buttress the California Watch allegations, yet the map in the blog shows Moreno Valley as an example of having DUI checkpoints placed where DUI is taking place.

      While the Unlicensed to Kill data my be old, a new study, coming out soon from the California DMV shows that the problem continues to be just as serious, if not more so. Not only are unlicensed drivers a danger to others, they are a danger to themselves and their passengers. This danger falls disproportionately on California’s Latino population, especially young males, for whom traffic deaths are a leading cause of mortality.

      Finally, the unlicensed driver is also the uninsured driver, which has huge potential ramifications for everyone on the road.

  7. Thank you for the facts supporting unlicensed driver enforcement.

    Usually overlooked is the argument that a “license” indicates a standard of competency and testing.

    A license applicant is tested for basic understanding of rules of the road, vision the ability to understand English street signs, and queried on prohibitive medical issues.

    The physical license document provides a recognizable standard for enforcement, allowing the issuance of a citation in lieu of a physical (and costly) arrest. A license also provides satisfies the condition of identity in the case of an accident.

    Clearly absent from the “unfair targeting” argument, is that everyone has the opportunity to obtain an International Drivers License which is valid in the US, or use the license from their home country, which is valid on a state-by-state basis.

    AD1389 is way off target.

    Craig C.

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