SUMMIT COUNTY — With warmer weather here, the Summit County OVI Task Force has ramped up the number of checkpoints it operates.
But what benefits they bring are difficult to quantify. Between October 2017 and June 2018, the task force set up 16 checkpoints and accompanying saturation patrols, resulting in 41 OVI arrests.
"It's hard to measure the effectiveness," said Summit County Sheriff's Deputy Dan Cuckler, who serves as the task force's commander.
Cuckler says when he makes an alcohol-related arrest during a task force operation, he tries to keep in mind that he may have prevented a fatal crash.
"In my personal opinion, I saved that person's life," he said.
The task force comprises 11 police agencies in the county. Besides the sheriff's office, they include the Akron, Barberton, Bath, Boston Heights, New Franklin, Peninsula, Richfield, Silver Lake, Stow and Tallmadge police departments.
According to activity reports, the task force conducted eight checkpoints and accompanying saturation patrols in October, November, and March and none in December, January and February. The task force also funded separate saturation patrols in various communities over Halloween, Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's, and during the Super Bowl in early February. The task force reported that inclement winter weather into March made its operations difficult.
During those six months, the task force reported a total of 21 OVI arrests, although it also reported filing a number of other unrelated charges, such as driving under suspension and drug possession.
The task force reported 20 OVI arrests from eight checkpoints and saturation patrols already conducted in April, May and June.
While the checkpoints are legal and have been declared constitutional by the federal courts, some legal experts question their cost effectiveness.
Shawn Dominy, a Columbus attorney who has researched sobriety checkpoints, points to the low number of arrests the Summit County task force typically reports. For example, in Tallmadge on St. Patrick's Day just three OVI arrests were reported over about six hours, during which about 800 vehicles passed through two checkpoints.
"As the Summit County checkpoints demonstrate, sobriety roadblocks are a huge waste of resources," said Dominy. "Thousands of dollars are spent, and hundreds of motorists are inconvenienced, to net three arrests. If this program were operated in private industry, it would be terminated as soon as the data is received."
But Cuckler said arrests are not the point, deterrence is.
"Honestly, we hope to get no arrests at all at a checkpoint," he said. "We hope enough word gets out that people are going to find another way to get home. They don't want to take the risk of running through our checkpoint, wherever it's going to be in the county."
The Ohio State Highway Patrol concurs with this view.
"The principal benefit of a sobriety checkpoint is its deterrent effect on impaired drivers or potential impaired drivers ... although a large number of OVI arrests are not expected, there is a greater perceived risk of arrests because of awareness efforts. Enforcement is frequently complemented by education, and deterrence is enhanced by awareness," the OSHP states on its website.
According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention review of "11 high-quality studies" of sobriety checkpoints conducted from 1995 to 2011, well-publicized checkpoints reduced alcohol-related crashes by about 20 percent, with fewer drivers found with positive blood alcohol content levels.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have both expressed similar conclusions in publications they have released, although the IIHS, as well as the CDC review, includes a caveat that checkpoints can be done with as few as three officers.
And according to a Mothers Against Drunk Driving fact sheet, research indicates that sobriety checkpoints can save between $6 and $23 in costs related to alcohol-related crash costs for every dollar that is spent.
Who funds task force operations?
The task force coordinates checkpoints and saturation patrols, which take place both in conjunction with checkpoints and separately. This enforcement is funded with a $225,000 annual grant from the Ohio Traffic Safety Office, part of the Ohio Department of Public Safety. The state obtains its funding through the NHTSA.
Cuckler said the task force has been receiving the grants annually for at least 10 years.
According to the task force's budget for the current fiscal year, about $145,000 goes toward police officers for their enforcement efforts; about $39,000 is spent on benefits; and $20,000 is budgeted for the sheriff's office's coordination efforts. The remainder is spent on education, transportation costs, equipment and supplies.
Reports the task force must file with the state show about $50,000 was spent during the first six months of this fiscal year, Oct. 1, 2017 to March 31, 2018.
Under state requirements, Summit is one of only 12 counties in the state eligible to receive the grants, because it had at least 18 alcohol-related fatal crashes during the three-year period 2015-17. In its grant proposals filed for the current fiscal year and for fiscal year 2019, the task force reported there were 20 such crashes in 2016 and 10 last year. Cuckler said crashes are showing signs of dropping again this year.
Indeed, according to this year's activity reports, for the first six months of this fiscal year, there was one alcohol-related fatal crash and four during the same period a year earlier.
To receive $225,000, the highest amount a task force can receive, a county must conduct at least 16 checkpoints each fiscal year. In its grant proposals, Summit commits to 26 checkpoints.
Other requirements include public awareness efforts, such as issuing media releases, coordinating training for participating officers and conducting monthly coordination meetings.
And although the state will reimburse task forces for up to 20 officers at a checkpoint, it encourages task forces to use no more than 14.
"We usually have about 12 officers there," said Cuckler.
In addition, locations of checkpoints and patrols are selected based on areas of particular concern when it comes to OVIs.
"We try to stay mostly in the jurisdictions that are part of the task force," said Cuckler. "We don't like to step on toes."
Cuckler reiterates that deterrence is what the task force is after.
"So if they're going to go out and drink, they find another way to get home versus getting behind the wheel of their car," he said.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JeffSaunders_RP.