Over the past three years, law enforcement agencies in East Baton Rouge Parish have conducted sobriety checkpoints with increasing regularity in an effort to boost road safety on the state’s deadliest highways.
Spurring the increased presence has been a growth in grant funding nearly across the board for local agencies, which annually collect hundreds of thousands of dollars earmarked for operating sobriety, or DWI, checkpoints.
“Checkpoints are a very effective strategy in reducing impaired driving,” said Ken Trull, LHSC’s deputy director, in an email, citing enforcement recommendations by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. A 2002 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review referenced by the NHTSA found sobriety checkpoints reduce alcohol-related crashes by about 20 percent.
Throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s, East Baton Rouge Parish, the most populous parish in Louisiana with about 440,000 residents, led the state in alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes with an average of 329 per year, narrowly edging Orleans Parish, according to LHSC figures.
When including all fatal or injury crashes attributed to inattentive or distracted driving, EBR’s average numbers, at nearly 1,100, dwarf those of every other parish. The next closest, Lafayette Parish, recorded 562 such crashes, according to the figures.
Precisely because of such statistics, local agencies receive more grant money from LHSC for sobriety checkpoints than those in other parishes.
The state agency doles out the grants to parishes around the state using federal money, Trull said.
In 2013, the Baton Rouge Police Department conducted 66 sobriety checkpoints between January and early December, more than triple the 20 done in 2011, according to figures the department provided to The Advocate.
In fiscal year 2014, which began Oct. 1, the department is eligible for up to $300,000 in reimbursements for operating sobriety checkpoints. That will cover mostly officer overtime costs associated with running the checkpoints, Trull said.
The checkpoints, which generally lead to the arrest of 1 or 2 percent of the drivers who enter them, also can serve as deterrents. They can sway intoxicated people to call cabs, designate a sober driver or avoid hopping into a car altogether, officials said.
“Not all of your resources are there stationary at the checkpoint,” said Capt. Doug Cain, a State Police spokesman.
Authorities often saturate the area around checkpoints with additional patrol units. Then, if a suspected drunken driver tries to avoid the checkpoint, nearby officers hopefully will still be able to catch that person, Cain said.
The increased effort to combat drunken driving may be working. While East Baton Rouge Parish’s roads remain some of the deadliest in the state, the number of alcohol-related fatal and injury crashes has steadily declined since 2006, according to LHSC figures.
“We’re seeing those numbers move in the right direction,” Cain said. “But at the end of the day, one fatality is too much.”
More recently, buzz created on social media sites about checkpoint locations has served as an additional tool in agencies’ arsenals. The highly publicized locations will often force people who may have driven intoxicated to alter their plans, indirectly making the roads safer, said Lt. Cory Reech, head of BRPD’s DWI Task Force, in an email.
“It is this combination of fear of being caught in sobriety checkpoints that makes the checkpoint effective by virtue of its existence,” Reech said.
Sobriety checkpoints were unconstitutional in Louisiana until a Supreme Court ruling in 2000 spelled out guidelines under which they could be employed.
Since then, the frequency of checkpoints conducted by local agencies has increased significantly, especially in recent years.
The East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office, which assists BRPD in many checkpoints, participated in 11 sobriety checkpoints in 2013. Deputies and officers screened about 5,000 vehicles, resulting in roughly 100 arrests for suspicion of driving while intoxicated, according to figures provided by the Sheriff’s Office.
In 2012, the agency participated in fewer checkpoints — four — which saw about 2,100 vehicles screened and netted 25 suspicion of DWI arrests.
LHSC grant funding for the Sheriff’s Office, like that of Baton Rouge police, has ticked up annually since fiscal year 2011. It more than doubled, from $72,000 then to $160,000 for fiscal year 2014, according to LHSC figures.
Other agencies, such as Louisiana State Police, the Zachary Police Department and the Baker Police Department, conduct fewer sobriety checkpoints — maybe one or two a year — officials said.
Still, funding for Zachary Police and State Police Troop A has gone up steadily since fiscal year 2012.
The Zachary Police Department is eligible for $24,500 in fiscal year 2014, up from $15,500 two years ago.
State Police Troop A, headquartered in Baton Rouge, saw comparable trends and is eligible for nearly $50,000 in sobriety checkpoint grant funding in fiscal year 2014, which ends Sept. 30.
“Every checkpoint we do, we end up getting a drunk driver or two,” Cain said. “So that’s a life saved — whether it’s the actual impaired driver or somebody he or she may have hit down the road.”