On more than one occasion over the years, we criticized former Albany County Sheriff James Campbell’s policy of alerting the public in advance of one of his department’s blanket DWI patrols, typically held over big drinking holidays like New Year’s, St. Patrick’s Day and Halloween. While the warnings appeared to keep some revelers honest on those nights, it did nothing to discourage them from driving drunk at other times — and might have even encouraged them to do so — and thus failed to achieve the maximum benefit.
Now, an unannounced Halloween weekend sweep held by Acting Sheriff Craig Apple has affirmed this hypothesis. A dragnet with one-third fewer stops than last year’s produced nearly double the number of DWI arrests: 29 in 786 traffic stops vs. 15 in 1,200 stops.
So it’s pretty clear that tipping people off has the desired effect of keeping people from drinking and driving, which is how Campbell used to defend the practice.
The problem is it’s a Pavlovian response, and when motorists who are inclined to drink and drive don’t think they’ll get caught — such as on a weekend when no dragnet has been announced — they’re more likely to do so. That’s why Apple’s new approach, mixing announced dragnets with occasional unannounced ones, makes sense.
Obviously the sheriff’s department can’t afford to run dragnets every weekend — nor would doing so be appropriate — but the element of surprise is the next best way to keep motorists from drinking and driving all the time.