Has Technology Made DUI Checkpoints Obsolete?

As York County said "goodbye" to 2019 and welcomed in 2020, residents did not experience any DUI checkpoints. The usual spots - North George Street in North York Borough across from the cemetery, the I-83 connector between York Hospital and I-83, Route 30 out along the bypass -- all of them were unmanned, and motorists were not stopped and evaluated for impairment.  Why not?

For decades, DUI checkpoints have been a mainstay of law enforcement efforts to crack down on drunk and drugged driving. Typically operated in high-traffic areas, they provided a visible very public means to show that something was being done to combat the scourge of impaired driving that has killed and maimed so many people each year since automobiles were invented.

On December 31, 2019, however, there was not a single checkpoint in York County. Reading between the lines, my suspicion is that local law enforcement is finally acknowledging that DUI checkpoints are not an effective use of police resources anymore. They never really were all that great -- "experienced" drinkers and the connected crowd knew where checkpoints were held anyway, even though specific locations were not announced ahead of time. Only a fool or the uninitiated would drive south out of York City on the I-83 connector on a holiday evening after having a few drinks. Consequently, checkpoints would typically catch college kids or people unfamiliar with the area.

Regardless of who was caught, everyone who went through one was inconvenienced and treated with suspicion. Checkpoints are massive dragnets, though the courts did give checkpoints a legal blessing to authorize what I've always felt to be an unconstitutional intrusion into the privacy of innocent drivers. 

Even inexperienced drivers are getting caught less and less by checkpoints now because of apps like Waze and Lyft and Uber. Notoriously, Waze warns drivers of hazards and delays on roads, including the presence of police. The New York City Police Department threatened to sue Waze over disclosing checkpoints. Informal social media networks - Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat - all provide ways for people to alert friends and family (and total strangers) to checkpoint locations as well. Lyft and Uber basically improved taxi service making it easier to get home safely after a night out drinking. DUI numbers are plummeting all over larger counties in Pennsylvania due to this effect - down by over 30% in some counties, based on the year before Lyft and Uber entered various markets and compared to today. Technology is eliminating a whole category of crime, and technology assisted and self-driving cars will get us the rest of the way in probably ten years.

Regardless of what the future holds, having a large number of police waiting at a checkpoint for impaired drivers to come to them wasn't all that effective before. It is less effective now. Since the "haul" from checkpoints has been declining, law enforcement appears to be (wisely) changing the focus to continue to have an effective means to enforce DUI laws.

What we saw in York County over New Year's Eve is what we can expect to see going forward -- police will be out in force, saturating "problem" areas with patrols. They look for cars with equipment issues (headlights out, brake lights that don't work, etc.) or "sticker" issues (inspections that are past due, license plate readers looking for registrations that have expired). They look for technical violations of the Vehicle Code -- speeding, failure to signal, drifting over a line -- and use those as grounds to make a vehicle stop and to check to see if a driver is impaired at the same time.

Ideally, they will be looking for hazardous driving, such as weaving, aggressive driving, excessive speed, and so on. Those are the activities that lead to accidents, deaths and injuries in most cases anyhow.

The bottom line is that DUI checkpoints are functionally obsolete today. Law enforcement will continue to use them occasionally to "show the flag" in public, but the limited value of DUI checkpoints in the modern world will cause them to slowly fade into history. 


  • Joseph Gothie
    published this page in DUI Blog 2020-01-09 15:01:25 -0500