about this issue

Driving home from a wedding at the Summit Inn in Farmington, Pennsylvania, my husband and I decided to use the navigation system on my phone instead of following familiar Route 51.  “Tanya,” as we call the mechanical voice, took us onto the Mon-Fayette Expressway (PA 43), where we grudgingly paid several tolls and then exited at Finleyville out past South Park.  Almost as soon as we got off the highway (or so it seemed), Hal was pulled over by what is probably the Finleyville traffic cop.

“Do you know why I stopped you, sir?” the officer asked politely.  Hal had no idea. “You were going 41 in a 25 mile per hour zone—it’s a school zone,” he said.

Hmm, it was dark; there were no streetlights; we did not see a school; school was out for the summer, anyway, and the 25 mph zone was a small stretch of a 35 mph zone—easy to miss. Bummer. Still, we were sort of happy. “Thank God we hadn’t been drinking,” Hal said, pocketing a $176 ticket, the first violation he has had since 1972.

Getting stopped by the police makes the heart race, no matter what you’ve done. Getting stopped at a South Hills DUI Sobriety Task Force checkpoint must just about stop the heart, especially if you’ve had a drink or two, and that might turn out to be one too many.

A person with .08 percent blood alcohol content is considered intoxicated in Pennsylvania. For most of us, that is about two drinks of any kind within an hour. If you go out to dinner or to a party and have a couple of drinks over the course of the evening, chances are you aren’t drunk, and chances are you won’t get snared in a checkpoint. Still, you could be one tiny point over the .08 limit, and you could get stopped—even if you think you’ve memorized the location that the DUI Task Force has previously announced.

If you get stopped, you’ll have to face the music. Stupid tricks—chewing gum, driving with the window down, etc.—don’t work on well-trained officers who can take a close look and a sniff and make a good guess as to whether you’ll be able to walk the yellow line and what the blood test results will say. (One cop told me he cannot only smell if someone has been drinking but what. “You say you’ve been sipping Courvoisier, sir?  Smells like Natty Lite to me.”)

The huge bulk of drivers stopped at South Hills DUI Sobriety Task Force checkpoints, held four times a year, pass through without any problems.   A few who are not drinking get cited for other violations, such as expired licenses or stolen goods.  The unlucky few—the 11 intoxicated drivers out of more than 2,000 who were stopped at the checkpoint this past June, for example—need deep pockets and good lawyers.

Or maybe the ones who got caught are the lucky few.  Embarrassment, inconvenience and penalties aside, the DUI checkpoint might be the moment in time when they resolve never to drive drunk again, the decision that saves lives.