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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Sobering statistics


Sobering statistics

Driving Oregon’s roads has never been safer than it is now.

In 2010, the state’s fatality rate in vehicle crashes was .96 per 100 million miles traveled. That’s the lowest rate on record.

And despite threefold or greater increases in the state’s population and number of registered vehicles, you have to go clear back to 1944 to find a year when fewer people died in wrecks than the 325 who were killed in 2010 (the 1944 total was 245).

Yet one specter in particular continues to haunt Oregon’s highways: impaired drivers.

In 2009, the last year for which records are available, 39 percent of the fatal crashes in Oregon involved at least one driver who was intoxicated, according to ODOT.

That percentage has been depressingly similar, between 34 percent and 49 percent, for the past 10 decade.

It’s time to give Oregon voters a chance to prevent some of these tragedies.

The vehicle, as it were, is House Joint Resolution 25, under consideration in Salem.

If passed, that legislation would allow voters to decide in November whether to amend the Oregon Constitution to allow police to conduct sobriety checkpoints.

In those operations, police stop vehicles on a certain stretch of road to make sure drivers are not intoxicated. The procedure varies but it must be consistent — for instance, police stop every vehicle, or every third vehicle.

Sobriety checkpoints have been illegal in Oregon since a state Supreme Court ruling in 1987.

Three years later, the U.S. Supreme Court, in a 6-3 decision on a case from Michigan, decided that sobriety checkpoints are not “unreasonable” searches or seizures, which are forbidden under the Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Since then, 38 of the 50 states, along with the District of Columbia, have allowed sobriety checkpoints.

There’s ample reason to do so.

A 2002 study by the federal Centers for Disease Control concluded that checkpoints, on average, result in a 20-percent drop in crashes.

Sobriety checkpoints could save more than 50 lives per year in Oregon.

Opposition to checkpoints, by contrast, in many cases seems to be based not on tangible results but rather on some perceived loss of freedom.

A troubling thought, certainly. Yet it has little, if any, relevance to sobriety checkpoints.

The Oregon proposal, if approved by voters, would require police to comply with national standards for sobriety checkpoints. Those standards are designed to prohibit police from using checkpoints for purposes other than finding impaired drivers (although some states allow police to also check drivers’ licenses, registration and insurance status).

That’s a reasonable precaution. We urge Oregon lawmakers, should voters amend the state Constitution, to restrict police during checkpoints to assessing drivers’ level of impairment.

Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who authored the majority opinion in the 1990 Michigan case, wrote that “the intrusion on motorists stopped briefly at sobriety checkpoints is slight.”

We agree. Saving innocent lives, by contrast, is much greater than a slight effect.


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