How the "Selfie" Generation is Destroying the DWI Checkpoint

Social Media and DWI Checkpoints

The main purpose of a Driving While Impaired (DWI) checkpoint is deterrence, not detection. Yes, motorists do get caught driving while impaired at these checkpoints but their main function has first and foremost always been to discourage drunk driving in the first place. Law enforcement agencies tend to widely publicize the dates (although not the locations) of DWI checkpoints for just this reason. We reported as much in a previous blog post about checkpoints. Even without the publication of dates, checkpoints tend to follow a formula. They are more likely to be set up on a Friday or Saturday night, and police departments are more likely to set them up around holidays or major events where drinking might occur, such as football games or concerts. Yet technology is making the DWI checkpoint a less effective strategy for DWI deterrence and enforcement in the wake of social media and the widespread use of smartphones. In seconds, drivers can share with others that they have been through a DWI checkpoint and where. Social media is also making it easier for drivers to avoid speed traps for the same reason.

There is an app available to both Apple and Android mobile users called “Mr. Checkpoint,” which alerts users to the approximate location of any DWI checkpoints in their area. The creators of the app argue that its purpose is not to promote drinking and driving, but rather as a means to encourage people not to get behind the wheel after having too much to drink. By reminding those out-on-the-town that there are officers actively looking for drunk drivers nearby, the developers of the Mr. Checkpoint app contend that party-goers are more likely to make the smart choice to utilize other forms of transportation, rather than risk an encounter with police. Regardless of the intentions of the folks behind the Mr. Checkpoint app, it isn’t hard to see how it could be used for questionable purposes.

Police in Missouri have responded to the increasing use of social media to alert drivers to checkpoints by setting up checkpoints at odd hours of the day or times of the week, making checkpoints shorter in duration, and even maintaining checkpoints at multiple locations at once. Law enforcement in Missouri also scans social media to determine when news starts spreading about a checkpoint location, which aids them in the decision of when to terminate a checkpoint. Such a tactic wouldn’t work in North Carolina, which currently requires that law enforcement agencies develop a plan for each DWI checkpoint and then stick with it. Officers can’t just terminate a checkpoint if they become aware that social media is helping people avoid the net, because failure to follow the checkpoint plan could result in dismissal of any charges filed.

From a purely legal view, there is little that can be done to discourage social media users from publicizing the locations of DWI checkpoints – after all, because the checkpoints are set up on public streets and/or highways, their locations are considered public information once they are established. While sharing the locations of checkpoints might impede the overall effectiveness of the roadblocks, it would be a violation of the 1st Amendment right of free speech for lawmakers to step in to forbid it. So if police in North Carolina want to more adequately combat DWIs, they are either going to have to update their approach when it comes to checkpoints or switch strategies altogether.

Don’t get me wrong – driving after drinking is generally not the best idea. According to statistics collected by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), over 10,000 people were killed in drunk driving related vehicle crashes in 2012. In sufficient quantities, alcohol absolutely impairs an individual’s manual dexterity, reaction time, and judgment. But instead of focusing on enforcement, why aren’t we investing money in prevention? Raleigh is one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in the nation, and yet a person would be hard pressed to find a city bus in operation much past midnight on the weekend. What if, instead of investing only in a greater law enforcement presence, we subsidized taxi rides for people wanting to get home from popular nightlife spots? What about giving gift cards to gas stations for people who agree to be designated drivers? Why do we have to resort to using the stick when the carrot works just as well?

Impaired driving has never been a good thing, and I fully support the idea that we need to reduce instances of it. What is obvious, however, is that the tactics of the past are going to continue to become less effective in the future. It isn’t just law enforcement that needs to adapt – it is society at large. Because like it or not, people are still going to go out to bars; there will still be people who have one too many when they are drinking with friends, and those people may feel that they have no viable alternative to get home but to drive. We have been condemning this behavior for decades now, and yet it still keeps happening (albeit at lower rates than it once did). People know what the wrong choice is – let’s make it easier for them to make the right choice.