Every month, thousands of drivers are subjected to sobriety checkpoints that often involve unreasonable searches. Of course, everyone agrees that it’s important to stop dangerous drunk drivers, but luckily, there’s a solution that doesn’t require any invasive searches. Self-driving cars can restore our civil liberties while also dramatically reducing drunk driving—but only if legislators stop throwing up roadblocks and actually embrace this new technology.
Current Practices Violate Civil Liberties
At sobriety checkpoints, police randomly stop vehicles and look for impaired drivers. This policing practice is legal in 38 states and the District of Columbia, and 13 states conduct checkpoints on a weekly basis.
In a single 12-month stretch, West Virginia used sobriety checkpoints to stop more than 130,000 drivers. Out of all of these drivers, only 189 were even arrested—let alone convicted—of drunk driving.
Of course, these checkpoints are set up with good intentions, and we should do everything we can to discourage drunk driving. But in the end, police pull over thousands of people with no justification except that they were driving on a certain road at a certain time. For example, in a single 12-month stretch from 2010 to 2011, West Virginia used sobriety checkpoints to stop more than 130,000 drivers. Out of all of these drivers, only 189 were even arrested—let alone convicted—of drunk driving.
Once they’re stopped, police often search these drivers’ cars without any valid reason.
In theory, officers can only do a quick scan of the vehicle interior and look at what’s in “plain view.” But most policemen will then ask you if they can search your car, and they’re trained to use a variety of techniques to trick you into agreeing. After all, most Americans find it uncomfortable to refuse an officer. As former Stanford Law professor Michelle Alexander notes in her book The New Jim Crow, “Consent searches are valuable for police because hardly anyone dares to say no.” As a result, checkpoints often help officers secure broad leeway to search your vehicle.
Sobriety checkpoints were upheld by the Supreme Court in Michigan Department of State Police v. Sitz (1990), but critics say the policing practice is actually inconsistent with the Fourth Amendment’s protection against unreasonable searches. Lars Trautman, a senior fellow of criminal justice and civil liberties policy at the R Street Institute, told me via email:
[Michigan v Sitz] created a perverse result in which a suspicionless stop that would be constitutionally offensive if conducted against an individual suddenly becomes sound so long as it’s done against a random group of people. The purpose of the 4th Amendment was to limit seizures, not to create incentives to do more of them.
Essentially, Trautman believes it’s a violation of the Fourth Amendment to pull over large numbers of American drivers without a reasonable suspicion that they were doing anything wrong.
In spite of criticisms and efforts to roll them back, checkpoints remain widespread because police departments say they’re an effective deterrent to drunk driving.
A Safe Solution
But if you’re in a self-driving car, then it doesn’t matter if you’re intoxicated—your car will still drive almost perfectly. Self-driving cars can function similarly to ride-sharing companies like Uber, which already reduce drunk driving in cities where they operate. In a self-driving car, you might be drunk, but your automated “driver” remains completely sober. This is one reason that, according to consulting firm McKinsey & Company, self-driving cars could reduce traffic deaths by up to 90 percent.
Autonomous vehicles represent a way for states to save money and lives while restoring our liberties.
A world in which everyone uses self-driving cars is a world in which sobriety checkpoints no longer serve any legitimate purpose, making courts less likely to uphold the practice in the future and states less likely to spend money on them. Autonomous vehicles represent a way for states to save money and lives while restoring our liberties.
Unfortunately, today only 36 states even allow self-driving cars on the road. Legislators need to recognize the value of self-driving cars to both our safety and our liberty and get behind this new technology.