Why Police Aren’t Catching Drunk Drivers

4 minute read

Drunk driving kills 10,000 Americans every year. That’s a third of car accident deaths and a number only slightly lower than the number who die in firearm homicides. But, even as drunk driving remains prevalent and dangerous, legislators and police have dragged their feet in enacting and implementing proven measures to curb the practice. More than anything else, it’s just not their top priority.

“Most police knows that there’s still a lot of drunk driving going on and that they should enforce [laws to stop it], but there’s other competing issues now,” said James C. Fell, an expert on traffic safety enforcement programs at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation. “They can’t put all their marbles into the impaired driving enforcement. They’ve got to do other things.”

But even as police face a host of other issues, Fell says there are some measures that can be easily implemented that have been proven to reduce deaths. Communities where police conduct more traffic stops tend to have fewer incidents of drunk driving, according to Fell’s recent study in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

“They see the police, they know they’re enforcing the law, and it deters drinking and driving,” said Fell, who worked at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for 30 years.

Other research suggests that sobriety check points, where police stop all traffic to conduct field sobriety tests, can similarly reduce deaths. But police departments simply aren’t doing them, at least not at the necessary scale. Only 3% of Americans drive in jurisdictions where police set up weekly sobriety check points, recent research suggests.

“They’re not very popular. Police don’t like doing them,” said Fell of the checks. “They think it’s resource intensive and they feel like they can be more productive patrolling the streets.”

Police departments contacted by TIME expressed confidence in the effectiveness of sobriety checks, but also noted their expense.

Lieutenant Kraig Gray of the Greenwich, CT Police Department said his department receives grant money to increase police presence throughout the holiday season and typically sets up a sobriety check point at one point during the season. It’s a step in the right direction, but a far cry from the weekly check points that Fell says are most effective.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department sets up many more check points across the cities and areas it works with to provide increased enforcement to combat drunk driving.

“One of the aspects of DUI checkpoints is education,” said Daniel Dail, a sergeant at the department. “We want people to think that the cops are everywhere.”

But, like in many places across the country, drivers who encounter sobriety check points in Los Angeles are offered an easy escape. The check points are required to allow for what Dail describes as an “escape route.” If a car turns away, the police won’t pursue it.

For the drivers who are caught, there are often few penalties beyond a night in the so-called drunk tank, something police say is out of their hands.

A number of factors may contribute to a prosecutor’s decision of whether to prosecute, according to Joanne Thomka of the National District Attorneys Association. At the top of the list is a question of resources, said Thomka. Given that drunk driving cases are “some of the most complex cases” to prosecute, Thomka said that district attorneys sometimes decide they’re not worth pursuing.

“Is there enough equipment for officers to do testing? Are prosecutors all trained properly? Do we have enough prosecutors?” said Thomka, citing common questions asked by officers before pursuing a drunk driving case.

To be fair, the devastating effects of drunk driving on society have declined over time thanks to a massive increase in awareness and enforcement, in part initiated by police. “Those who were raised in the us over the last 25 years have gotten the message that DWI is not cool,” said Gray.

Still, the bottom line is that drunk drivers today are unlikely like to be caught and even less likely to be prosecuted. There are almost 300,000 incidents of drunk driving each day, but less than 4,000 of those incidents result in arrest. Driving drunk may not be cool, but it’s definitely still happening.

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Write to Justin Worland at justin.worland@time.com