A Maryland gubernatorial task force on drunk driving recommended yesterday that Gov. Harry Hughes allow state police to expand statewide a controversial pilot program of using roadblocks to catch drunk drivers.
Aides to Hughes, who has made a crackdown on intoxicated drivers a keystone of his administration, said the governor is expected to go along with the recommendation.
State police officials said that if the governor adopts the recommendation they would set up sobriety checkpoints, as the roadblocks are called, at various spots around the state for the coming heavily traveled Memorial Day weekend.
The 12-member task force, headed by Lt. Gov. J. Joseph Curran Jr., voted unanimously in favor of an expanded program after state police presented a statistics-laden report on the 90-day pilot program used earlier this year in three northeast Maryland counties.
According to the 136-page report, 6,171 vehicles were stopped by police roadblocks in Harford, Cecil and Carroll counties, but only 31 drivers were arrested on charges of driving while intoxicated.
Police officials and task force members said the point of the roadblocks was not to make arrests but to change attitudes. The figures from the pilot program, they said, showed that the widely advertised program was helping to scare those who had been drinking heavily from using their cars.
"I think it has worked," said State Police Superintendent Col. Wilbert Travers. "I think we are changing attitudes. The key words are public awareness, public education and deterrence."
The state police report also contained statistics from a survey of drivers stopped at checkpoints. About 86 percent of those who responded said they approved of the roadblocks as a technique for combatting drunk driving.
Police officials said they have received few complaints from stopped drivers. To meet constitutional requirements, state police stop all vehicles passing through a well-marked checkpoint area, pulling aside only drivers who smell of alcohol or act drunk.
The police report also showed that in Harford County, where the pilot program started last December, alcohol-related crashes decreased by 11 percent while in Frederick County, without the roadblocks, the number of crashes held constant.
Police in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, where local roadblock programs are in effect, report similar reductions in alcohol-related accidents.
Travers said that if the expanded program is approved, he expects police to rotate the roadblocks throughout the state, setting them up in a few counties at a time. Travers said he did not know if the expanded program would increase police costs.
Task force member Tom Sexton, whose oldest son was killed several years ago by a drunk driver, said of the cost issue, "The bottom line is simply this: If they're able to reduce alcohol-related crashes, and they're able to create awareness and change people's driving behavior, I don't think cost becomes a factor anymore."