OAKLAND — It wasn't exactly the best afternoon of Brandon Bradford's life.
Of course, things would have gone differently if his friend hadn't eased his thirst outdoors with a bottle of Lost Coast Brewery beer on the ground next to Bradford's blue Chevrolet Lumina van. But his friend did, and the next thing the East Palo Alto resident knew, he was blowing into a Breathalyzer, thanks to an "Avoid the 25" DUI saturation patrol.
A roving police officer swooped down on Bradford, who registered at more than the legal limit, police say. By the time the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum-based patrol called it a night five hours later Dec. 21, 14 suspected drunken drivers had been apprehended. In a similar time period, an estimated zero to four offenders might get caught in a DUI checkpoint.
This is why law enforcement should focus on saturation patrols like the one that nabbed Bradford instead of DUI checkpoints, according to the American Beverage Institute, a restaurant industry trade group.
This holiday season, and especially tonight, 125 police agencies are working together to catch drunken and unlicensed Bay Area drivers in the annual "Avoid the 25" campaign. The campaign uses two approaches: stationary DUI checkpoints in which every passing driver is stopped, and saturation patrols made up of roving officers. Not everyone favors the checkpoints.
"Roadblocks have been proven largely ineffective and fail to target the real drunk driving problem," said Sarah Longwell, managing director of the American Beverage Institute. Longwell said a roadblock will often catch no drunken drivers and cost taxpayers $10,000.
Clearly, Longwell's organization, which advocates for responsible drinking in restaurants, has a stake in the matter. But a Bay Area consumer psychologist had at least partial support for the American Beverage Institute's stance.
"It would be a deterrent if someone saw it (a checkpoint) before they were heading out to party. But to see them on the way home isn't going to do anything, which is when most consumers are going to see them — when it's too late to do the right thing," said Kit Yarrow, a psychologist and professor at San Francisco's Golden Gate University.
Though Jerry Jones, of Berkeley, never drinks and drives now, he partied hearty as a college student in the 1980s.
"The one time I saw a checkpoint, I was on my way home loaded, as I frequently was in those days," Jones said. "I turned off onto a side street to avoid the checkpoint. If people are going to drink and drive, checkpoints don't have much effect."
The numbers tell part of the story.
"You hear it on the news every night," said Longwell, of the American Beverage Institute. "A roadblock stopped 200, 300 people and caught one drunk driver, or none. Police officers will tell you the roving patrols are more useful.
"The reason people like them (roadblocks) and safety officials defend them is they get money from the government to run them," Longwell said. "They get special money to do it."
The federal government doles out small grants specifically designated for checkpoints, according to Michele Meadows, assistant director of administration for the California Office of Traffic Safety. The office is a pass-through agency that distributes federal funding for the small grants and for the "Avoid" program, which includes both checkpoints and saturation patrols.
Checkpoint costs vary depending on factors including how many people are working at them and how long they last, Meadows said. But in her experience, the cost is in the $8,300 range.
An Office of Traffic Safety spokesman agreed that roadblocks catch fewer drunken drivers than saturation patrols.
"There were 5,606 patrol vehicles (on saturation patrols) in 2007 and they arrested roughly twice as many DUIs as the checkpoints did," said Chris Cochran, of the Office of Traffic Safety. "There were 1,469 checkpoints and they arrested 5,066 people, and the saturation patrols arrested 10,548 people."
But that's not the point, Cochran said. "The purpose of checkpoints is prevention," he said. Prevention is a passion with Cochran and his colleagues, who will be out in force this week as part of DUI checkpoints and saturation patrols.
"We're publicizing that drinking and driving is the wrong thing to do. The people who go through the checkpoints get an education; people who drive by see the lights and action and say, 'There's a DUI checkpoint going on.' Even drunks will hear about them and maybe they'll call taxis or friends," Cochran said.
A therapist who helped create a successful Drug Court program for repeat DUI offenders in Athens, Ga., agreed.
"In general, knowing there are strong DUI laws and consequences for your actions, knowing the main road I am going to take home is going to have a checkpoint and that there might be random checkpoints, can help someone modify their behavior so much it becomes a part of their life," said Ann Larie Valentine, a licensed clinical social worker and addiction specialist who now lives and practices in San Francisco.
"Alcohol-related fatalities decline by an average of 15 (percent) to 28 percent when sobriety checkpoints are used in a consistent and regular manner," Cochran said.
A report published in the December 2002 issue of Traffic Injury Prevention concluded that checkpoints are effective. Researchers combined the results of 23 studies and concluded that checkpoints consistently reduced alcohol-related crashes, typically by about 20 percent.
The number of California alcohol-involved traffic fatalities fell to 1,489 last year from 1,597 in 2006, the first decrease in a decade. Officers made 203,000 DUI arrests in the state in 2007, compared with 197,000 in 2006, with 1,469 DUI checkpoints conducted statewide in 2007, "a couple hundred" more than the previous year, Cochran said.
It's difficult to prove a relationship between the numbers, but it's enough for Cochran.
"An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," Cochran said.
Reach Janis Mara at 925-952-2671 or firstname.lastname@example.org.