Drunken-driving arrests rise 70%

State Police credit checkpoints in 2-year crackdown

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / June 26, 2008

Drunken-driving arrests by the Massachusetts State Police have increased by 70 percent over the past two years, as more intoxicated motorists are being caught at sobriety checkpoints, according to police.

Last year, State Police arrested 4,879 people for operating under the influence, compared with 3,860 in 2006 and 2,869 the previous year.

During that time, the agency has dramatically increased the number of sobriety checkpoints it operates, from 14 during all of 2005 to 82 last year.

"Our arrests are certainly up, and that is because we are putting extra effort into it," said Colonel Mark Delaney, who heads the State Police.

Troopers set up a sobriety checkpoint somewhere in the state nearly every Friday and Saturday night, he said. In the first six months of this year, State Police have made 1,967 drunken-driving arrests.

"Unfortunately, there will always be some that don't have much concern for the rest of the motoring public and take some chances and make some bad choices, and those are the people we have to deter," Delaney said.

State Police announce in advance that they will be setting up a sobriety checkpoint in a particular county, but keep the specific location secret.

Checkpoints are staffed by about 15 officers, according to police. Drivers are stopped and briefly questioned about whether they have been drinking and asked to pull over for a field sobriety test or breath-alcohol test if they appear intoxicated or smell of alcohol.

Police average about 10 to 12 arrests each time they set up a checkpoint, Delaney said.

While the number of drunken-driving arrests is up, the number of drunken-driving fatalities in Massachusetts is down, according to statistics provided by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

There were 181 fatalities in 2004 involving at least one drunk driver, 148 in 2005, and 137 in 2006. Figures for last year have not yet been released.

Barbara Harrington, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving Massachusetts, said high-visibility law enforcement, primarily through the use of sobriety checkpoints, is a huge deterrent for drunk drivers.

"One of the things we've learned about checkpoints is they can reduce the deaths by an average of 20 percent," Harrington said.

"If they are visible, it gets through people's heads that you cannot do what you used to do, which was have too much to drink and not encounter a police officer."

Harrington credited better enforcement and tougher laws with reducing drunken-driving deaths in the state.

State Police released the drunken-driving arrest statistics to coincide with today's announcement of the agency's purchase of a second Breath Alcohol Testing Mobile, better known as a BAT Mobile, which will be used to test drivers at sobriety checkpoints.

The $250,000 40-foot-long recreational vehicle that was converted into a command center is equipped with Breathalyzers, a booking area, and two jail cells, where motorists who flunk the sobriety test can be held until they can be transported to a police station.

The first State Police BAT Mobile was purchased two years ago and has become a common site at sobriety checkpoints.

The vehicle makes it much more efficient for police to test motorists and process those who are charged with operating under the influence, Delaney said.

Its conspicuous presence also leaves an impression on many passersby.

"It's like a rolling billboard against drunken driving," Delaney said.

"It makes everyone more aware."

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