Police say they will be out in force to detect New Year's Eve revelers who drive after drinking too much, but their different strategies highlight a debate about how to best rid the roads of drunk drivers.
D.C. police will try to catch drunk drivers by screening motorists at a sobriety checkpoint. Many other departments, including Montgomery County police, will forgo checkpoints in favor of assigning extra officers to spot motorists driving suspiciously.
Some departments, such as Prince William County police, say they're so busy answering other alcohol-related calls on New Year's Eve that the regular number of patrol officers will have to ferret out drunk drivers as part of their routine duties.
Citizen groups concerned about drunken driving say they are worried that police are not doing more sobriety checkpoints on one of the year's most dangerous nights on the road. They point to studies showing that highly publicized operations involving sobriety checkpoints can reduce the number of alcohol-related crashes by as much as 20 percent.
Motorists who fear getting caught in a checkpoint, the groups say, will make plans so they don't drive after drinking.
"It's really too bad that police agencies are making that decision, because our research shows sobriety checkpoints are one of the most effective strategies they can use," said Jim Fell, who is a national board member of Mothers Against Drunk Driving and researches drunken driving initiatives.
Many police agencies in the Washington area say they emphasize checkpoints during other holidays -- such as Labor Day and Thanksgiving -- when alcohol-related fatalities soar. Police agencies also combined forces in the past six months for Checkpoint Strikeforce, in which they pledged to conduct at least one sobriety checkpoint a week in each of five states -- Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia -- and the District to cut down on drunken-driving fatalities.
But many police agencies say the checkpoints, while effective at raising public awareness, are not the most efficient way to get drunk drivers off the road on any given night.
Sobriety checkpoints can require dozens of officers to control traffic, interview drivers and test the suspicious ones, police say. That consumes valuable resources on a night when police are stretched thin by other alcohol-related calls, such as noisy parties, domestic violence, underage drinking and motorists calling in drunk drivers.
Lt. David Falcinelli, who oversees the Alcohol Initiatives Unit for Montgomery police, said about 1 percent of drivers stopped at a checkpoint are arrested for drunken driving. He said Montgomery police conduct sobriety checkpoints throughout the year, mostly because they raise awareness among the other 99 percent of motorists passing through them.
However, Falcinelli said, the agency switched its approach for New Year's Eve several years ago to having extra officers roam the county to increase their chances of stopping drunk drivers.
"You don't always get a lot of arrests at checkpoints," Falcinelli said. "On New Year's Eve, we want to spread our resources throughout the entire county."
Detective John Ritter, a spokesman for Arlington County police, said the department conducts one sobriety checkpoint a year, over Labor Day weekend. He said the county will have four extra officers on duty New Year's Eve, one more than on a typical Friday or Saturday night, to roam the county looking specifically for drunk drivers.
With a checkpoint, Ritter said, "you have all the officers in only one place. These officers can drive anywhere they want."
District police say they find sobriety checkpoints worthwhile, even on a night as busy as New Year's Eve. Lt. Patrick Burke, traffic safety coordinator for the department, said D.C. police will have 20 extra officers working overtime to conduct a sobriety checkpoint and to check bars to make sure that they are not serving people who are drunk or under age.
Burke said that all patrol officers are responsible for looking out for drunken driving but that the dangers of New Year's Eve are worth paying overtime to staff a sobriety checkpoint. He said he believes that the checkpoints are not only good deterrents but also effective for catching drunk drivers.
"We don't have to witness a violation" before catching someone, Burke said. "We just stop every car, and through those interactions, we've been successful at identifying drunk drivers."
Fell, of MADD, said heavy drinkers can be too intoxicated to react quickly to avoid a collision but experienced enough at driving drunk to avoid the speeding or weaving that will attract a patrol officer. Many of those drivers aren't caught unless they are stopped at a checkpoint, where an officer can smell their breath, Fell said.
Staff writer Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.