Dean Martin's contribution to highway safety came in this advice: ''If you drink, don't drive. Don't even putt.''
The 19th hole aside, the 1980s saw a decline in all age groups of drunken drivers involved in fatal highway crashes. Alcohol use among teenaged drivers, where the accident rate is highest, decreased from 28 percent in 1982 to 18 percent in 1988. The decade saw a shifting of public attitudes toward the besotted driver -- from bemused tolerance to collective disgust.
If any group supports this shift, it is the police, they being at the crash scenes of alcohol-induced gore. As an active way of preventing drunken driving -- as against the passive way of enacting laws -- some police departments set up sobriety checkpoints. On June 14 the Supreme Court ruled 6 to 3 that the stops are constitutional.
With that green light -- justified and overdue -- let the police get on with more roadblocks. Twenty-three-thousand deaths a year are alcohol-related, with another 500,000 people injured. If the carnage had not become routinized and shrugged off as an acceptable social price for the benefits of motor vehicles, calls for reducing the death and injury toll would be both constant and loud.
The Supreme Court case involved a police program in Saginaw County, Mich., in early 1986. At a checkpoint, which lasted 75 minutes, drivers in 126 cars were stopped. Two were arrested for drunken driving. Each of the cars was delayed an average of 25 seconds. The constitutional issue was the Fourth Amendment, which guarantees freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Michigan Court of Appeals ruling that the Saginaw operation was unconstitutional was reversed by the Supreme Court. Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote: ''The balance of the State's interest in preventing drunken driving, the extent to which this system can reasonably be said to advance this interest, and the degree of intrusion upon individual motorists who are briefly stopped, weighs in favor of the state program.''
In a dissent, Justice John Paul Stevens seemed unable to focus on a suitable metaphor for what he called ''suspicionless seizures of hundreds of innocent citizens.'' In one paragraph he cooks up an image of the Saginaw police as goon squads of a dictator: ''Unannounced investigatory seizures are, particularly when they take place at night, the hallmark of regimes far different than ours.'' In another: ''Sobriety checkpoints are elaborate, and disquieting, publicity stunts.''
Which is it? To the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which lost the case, the apocalyptic interpretation is preferred: ''When the U.S. Supreme Court abdicates its historic role and defers completely to the judgment of the police, allowing police to stop, detain and interrogate people who are suspected of no wrongdoing whatsoever, we have gone a long way down the road toward a police state.''
That's a bit overwrought. Cops can be bullies, for sure, as well as brutal. But sobriety checkpoints lasting 25 seconds per driver aren't the way police states are established. Rehnquist wrote about the Saginaw case, ''No allegations are before us of unreasonable treatment of any person after an actual detention at a particular checkpoint.''
Stevens and the ACLU, fretting over constitutional niceties, worry about the intrusions of the police. Why no similar concern for the intrusions of killer drunks who may lethally invade the privacy of non-drinking motorists in the opposite lane? Arresting drunks after they kill doesn't do much. Police action then is no more than post-crash intervention, when what is needed for safe roads is pre-crash prevention.
Sobriety checkpoints are one option among many, and not a particularly strong one at that. The Justice Department reports that 48 percent of jailed drunken drivers are repeat offenders. In June of 1989 then-surgeon general C. Everett Koop asked federal and private specialists for recommendations for decreasing drunken driving. They came up with more than 200 proposals, ranging from increasing excise taxes on alcohol to tougher license-suspension laws.
Without doubt, a case can be made that sobriety checkpoints are invasions of privacy. But not every police query is automatically oppressive. If people are using the privacy of their homes or chosen watering holes to tank up before driving, and grounded suspicions suggest that they are, what are the police to do -- wait passively for the crashes?