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Is it time for DUI checkpoints in Washington state?

(AP Photo/Susan Montoya Bryan)

An off-the-cuff discussion on DUI checkpoints was sparked by a presentation on traffic fatalities delivered to the Washington State Transportation Commission.

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The number of traffic-related fatalities is far from the lowest it has been in the past decade, according to the latest data from the state. In 2016, 535 people were killed on the state’s roadways; that’s 99 more than in 2013, which saw the lowest number of fatalities since before 2005.

Having just experienced a checkpoint in Hawaii, a member of the commission asked if Washington state has ever considered such a thing. He referred to them as sobriety checkpoints.

The answer: It would be a “pretty heavy lift for legislators.”

However, research shows that DUI checkpoints can decrease traffic fatalities by as much as 30 percent. They are effective, the commission was told, because they not only stop intoxicated people from continuing on their drive but because they change behavior.

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Many have questioned the legality of DUI checkpoints in the state, citing a 1988 ruling by the state Supreme Court that found a program in Seattle “violated the right to not be disturbed in one’s private affairs.” The court, in its ruling, noted that less than 1 percent of stops resulted in a DUI arrest.

A 2007 report prepared by the Washington State Department of Transportation noted that the Constitution would “appear to prohibit people from being stopped without a search warrant or at least without probable cause that they have committed a crime. However, the report notes, the U.S. Supreme Court has found DUI checkpoints to be “constitutionally permissible.”

In 2013, lawmakers in Olympia drafted legislation for a bill that would give the green light to stopping drivers at designated points.

In Hawaii, the commissioner said he was only stopped at the checkpoint for 30 seconds.

It’s hard to imagine DUI checkpoints receiving wide approval, at least in the heavily liberal areas of the state. With many cities and the state pushing back against the federal government’s deportation efforts, an argument against even brief stops is likely.

At the same time, efforts in Olympia aim to create more strict DUI laws have gone on for years. Last year, Gov. Inslee signed a bill into law that makes a fourth DUI a felony — down from five.

Though the number of fatal crashes was up in 2016 compared to a few years prior, the number was down slightly compared to the 551 fatal crashes in 2015. However, the number of crashes involving drugs or alcohol increased by 10 percent or more.

The Washington State Traffic Safety Commission is now working on its Target Zero plan for 2019. The goal is to significantly reduce deaths or serious injuries on the roads in the state by the year 2030.

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