DOT, Police Target Impaired Drivers

Police are out in force this Labor Day weekend, cracking down on drunken driving. The effort is aligned with an $11 million media campaign sponsored by the Department of Transportation.

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Contemporary Labor Day celebrations remain remarkably faithful to that first parade and picnic for workers in New York in 1882. But some of the longest parades now clog the nation's highways as Americans get bumper to bumper with one another for one more weekend at the beach or a visit to a theme park or a barbeque in a cousin's backyard, to feed the masses hot dogs and hamburgers by the millions, sizzle on grills from the tip of Cape Cod to the islands of Hawaii. And for many a six pack of beer or a bottle of wine will help wash down the chips and salsa.

But if you have even one too many this weekend, you better not get behind the wheel. The Department of Transportation has spent $11 million on a anti-drunk driving advertising campaign. And as NPR's Kathleen Schalch reports, this Labor Day weekend the police are also out in force across the country.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Police officer Steven Evans is sitting - okay, he's hiding - just off a major thoroughfare in Montgomery County, Maryland. He uses a laser device to spot speeders.

(Soundbite of cars)

SCHALCH: But Evans is really looking for something other than speeders. He's looking for drunk drivers. Driving too fast is just one way to attract his attention. So is forgetting to turn your lights on, swinging wide when taking a corner, or just driving a little erratically. Evans and his fellow officer, Rick Burgs(ph), stop a lot of motoristists and let most of them go.

But then they stopped this man, who comes up smelling like beer.

Mr. STEVEN EVANS (Police Officer): Were you drinking in your car as you were driving up the road?

Unidentified Male: Uhh...

Mr. EVANS: What's in the brown bag?

Unidentified Male: Yeah, well, there's one beer in there.

Mr. EVANS: Yeah, that's kind of what I'm thinking. Is it opened?

Unidentified Male: Yeah, it's in the middle console right there.

SCHALCH: The officers give him some test.

Mr. EVANS: See that blue light right there?

Unidentified Male: Yup.

Mr. EVANS: What I want you to do is watch that with your eyes, and your eyes only.

SCHALCH: Evans waves a tiny blue light back and forth and stares intently at the man's eyeballs to see if they jerk involuntarily.

Mr. EVANS: You nervous?

Unidentified Male: No.

Mr. EVANS: You're shaking.

Unidentified Male: Well, I'm sure I am shaking a little.

SCHALCH: Next he has to walk a straight line and then balance on one foot. Then he blows into a portable breathalyzer the officers carry. The reading is .04, meaning alcohol represents four hundredths of one percent of his bloodstream. The legal limit is .08, so this driver gets off with a ticket.

Next, the officers stop a young woman with hair the color of butterscotch. She takes off her high heels for the balancing on one foot test. It doesn't help.

They give her the breathalyzer test.

Mr. EVANS: Okay, what you need to do is you're going to take a deep breath, wrap your lips around here and make a complete seal and keep blowing until I tell you to stop. I'll hold the instrument, okay? I'm just going to put your hand down. Deep breathe, wrap your lips around and blow.

Blow out. Blow, blow, blow, blow, blow, blow, come on - deep breathe.

SCHALCH: She blows up .12, three times higher than the first motorist and half again higher than the legal limit.

(Soundbite of handcuffs)

SCHALCH: The officers handcuff her and arrest her for driving under the influence of alcohol. This weekend, police around the country are working overtime trying to nab as many drunk drivers as they can. The dragnet follows weeks of ads on T.V. and radio.

(Soundbite of ad)

ANNOUNCER: Can you guess what that sound is? Let me help you out. It's a jail cell door getting slammed shut after you've been booked for DUI. Don't think you'll get caught? Think again.

SCHALCH: The ads in both English and Spanish are aimed especially at males between the ages of 21 and 34, because men in this age group are the likeliest to drink, drive, and cause fatal accidents.

It's been the most expensive anti-drunk driving advertising blitz ever, according to acting Secretary of Transportation Maria Cino.

Ms. MARIA CINO (Acting Secretary of Transportation): This is a serious business. It's a life and death business.

SCHALCH: The Department of Transportation says alcohol contributed to nearly four of every ten traffic deaths last year. Sue Ferguson of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says one reason for the persistent problem may be that people don't think they'll get caught.

Ms. SUE FERGUSON (Insurance Institute for Highway Safety): Actually, that perception is not so off the wall, because it's been calculated that about one in 200 of your trips when you're drinking and driving are you likely to be stopped.

SCHALCH: Some law enforcement officials also complain that too many people get off too lightly when they go to court. Jim Champagne, who chairs the National Governors Highway Safety Association, told reporters last month he was frustrated.

Mr. JIM CHAMPAGNE (National Governors Highway Safety Association): Stop pity- patting in judicial systems and getting drunk drivers off. Let them pay the price for their crime.

SCHALCH: While the blood alcohol limit is now the same in all 50 states, punishments for first offenders differ. In some states first offenders may get probation or pay a small fine. But in other states some of the people arrested in this weekend's crackdown will in fact go to jail.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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