As holidays near, state agency declares 'the year of the checkpoint'

Lights, cones and cops with flashlights: if you're out driving in the next few weeks, it's likely you're going to come upon one of these familiar scenes.

More than 250 DUI checkpoints are scheduled around the state through Jan. 3. And next year, there will be even more. The state Office of Traffic Safety on Thursday declared 2010 "The Year of the Checkpoint," providing law enforcement agencies with $8 million to track down people driving under the influence. That's up from $5 million this year.

Law enforcement agencies always ramp up their DUI enforcement during the holidays, when people are drinking more and driving in conditions already more treacherous because of winter weather.

Driving under the influence accounts for thousands of accidents every year, many of them resulting in injuries or fatalities. Modesto ranks high on the list statewide, coming in at No. 4 of 52 cities with populations between 100,000 and 250,000.

"Modesto is heading toward a record you don't want," said Chris Cochran, assistant director for marketing & public affairs with the Office of Traffic Safety.

DUI crashes also exact a hefty financial toll: according to the OTS, the average alcohol-related fatality in California costs $3.8 million — $1 million in monetary costs and $2.8 million in quality-of-life losses. And the estimated cost per injured survivor of an alcohol-related crash averages $115,000 — $55,000 in monetary costs and $60,000 in quality-of-life losses.

Stanislaus County's law enforcement agencies employ the "Avoid the 12" campaign. Officers from all 12 departments take part in DUI checkpoints and saturation patrols.

"We target all the holidays — Christmas, New Year's, the Fourth of July, even Cinco de Mayo," said Turlock police officer Christina Magana, who coordinates the program for the county. "And in the middle of summer, we have several days we target."

With saturation patrols, officers roam an assigned city or area, looking for obvious signs of an impaired driver.

Magana said both efforts are effective. "You'd think people (who have been drinking) would see the checkpoint and turn around, but many don't." And if they do, "We have chaser cars that will pull them over."

Office of Traffic Safety Director Christopher J. Murphy said checkpoints are a vital tool in the fight against driving under the influence.

California's alcohol-related deaths have declined by 21 percent since 2005. State and local agencies started emphasizing sobriety checkpoints in 2006. And in 2008, officers statewide made 214,811 DUI arrests — the most since 1993.

"DUI checkpoints are time-tested and proven as the most effective DUI countermeasure and I'm gratified that we're seeing the life-saving results," Murphy said in a news release.

The state also mounted a public education campaign: Raley's supermarkets and 7-Eleven stores have signed on to promote a message to "Plan Ahead, Designate a Sober Driver."

"The public can help by, first and foremost, planning ahead before you celebrate and designating a non-drinking driver," CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow said. "If you see a drunk driver, call 911."

Modesto police Sgt. Brian Findlen called DUI enforcement "a critical component of traffic safety."

"It kills a lot of people in our community," he said. He pointed out that those injured or killed in DUI-related accidents often have done nothing wrong.

"Usually there is no contributing factor from the DUI offender to the victim," Findlen said. "It's a very abrupt and brutal way people become the victims."

On the Net: staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at or 578-2343.