South Dakota drivers sign up for sobriety checkpoint alerts

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. -- South Dakota motorists are getting a heads-up through text messages sent to their cellphones informing them when police will conduct checkpoints to nab drunken drivers — and it's just fine with state police.

In what appears to be a national first, the South Dakota Department of Public Safety began sending texts in March to alert motorists of upcoming sobriety checkpoints as a way of deterring drunken driving, says spokeswoman Brooke Bohnenkamp.

As of Thursday, she says, 710 people have signed up for the program. The texts warn motorists when and in which counties checkpoints are planned, but do not give specific locations for the checkpoints, Bohnenkamp says.

Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, which represents highway safety agencies in all 50 states, says he surveyed all 50, and none reported having a program quite like South Dakota's. Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, also said she has not heard of a similar program.

"Males 18 to 35 are the people we're still trying to reach," Adkins says. They tend to get information from text messages sent to their cellphones, BlackBerrys and other devices, he adds. The program is being greeted with enthusiasm by such organizations as AAA and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The text messages are "a great idea," says Heidi Castle, a national spokeswoman for Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

The primary purpose of a sobriety checkpoint "is to deter people from driving drunk," Castle says. "You want to stop them before they get on the road." A critical part of that process, she says, is letting the public know that checkpoints are planned.

"It may deter some from making a deadly decision," adds Troy Green, a national spokesman for AAA. If a reminder that police will be stopping motorists causes someone to drink fewer beers or arrange for a designated driver, Green says, "it has the potential to save your life and other lives as well."

The South Dakota notification idea arose from meetings over several months, Bohnenkamp says. It's one of several initiatives designed to curb drunken driving in South Dakota since 13 teenagers died in alcohol-related crashes on the state's roads in 2006, she says.

Col. Dan Mosteller, head of the South Dakota highway patrol, says he knows some people will question telling potential drunken drivers where law enforcement will be, recognizing that "announcing checkpoint locations might seem counterproductive to some."

Yet Bohnenkamp says the common misconception about sobriety checkpoints is that officers are out to arrest as many drunken drivers as they can.

"We far prefer to prevent them from drinking and driving altogether," Bohnenkamp says. "If it causes you to think twice, or to call for a ride, or to walk home, that's good news." Bohnenkamp says it's too early to tell if the program is keeping drunken drivers off South Dakota roads.

Elizabeth Reid of Brandon, S.D., says she thinks many motorists will know where the checkpoints will be once the county is announced — a few main highways and interstates in the area — and she thinks they may take back roads to avoid them.

"If they've been drinking, I think they would avoid the checkpoint," says Reid, a 19-year-old college student.

Martin reports for the Argus Leader in Sioux Falls, S.D. Contributing: Steve Young, Argus Leader