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Checkpoints by South Hills DUI Task Force serve as deterent to driving impaired

| Wednesday, July 15, 2015, 5:22 p.m.
Stephanie Hacke | Trib Total Media

Car after car stopped as the officers lining the side of the busy road checked for the basics: license, registration and inspection sticker.

But most importantly, the officers were watching and interacting with the more than 300 people traveling southbound along Kennywood Boulevard in the early hours of July 4 trying to make sure no one was driving under the influence.

“Most people thanked us for keeping them safe,” said Elizabeth Borough police Chief Tim Butler, who stood along Kennywood Boulevard for nearly two hours checking for signs of impairment in drivers.

“Ninety percent of the people aren't doing anything wrong. It's really a positive interaction.”

The South Hills DUI Task Force, composed of 13 local police departments, conducted one of two annual sobriety checkpoints. This one took place in West Mifflin on Kennywood Boulevard, a road police said is known for crashes and drunken-driving arrests.

Each of the 345 vehicles that traveled southbound along the road during a two-hour time span was stopped for the checkpoint, which was cut short by a late-night rain.

“It's a very big deterrent for people that even aren't drinking,” said West Mifflin police officer Ryan Sabol, who serves as a department liaison to the South Hills DUI Task Force. “People see that we're out here and that we're stopping people, and hopefully, they remember, and it keeps them from doing it.”

The South Hills DUI Task Force is planning another sobriety checkpoint in September in Pleasant Hills for the Labor Day holiday.

Sobriety checkpoints are meant to be “high-visibility deterrents,” said Cathy Tress, Western Pennsylvania law-enforcement liaison for the Pennsylvania DUI Association.

“Sobriety checkpoints, they show a lot of force, ... a lot of lights, a lot of officers, and usually, they end up finding a lot of other things, as well. It reminds folks that police are out there. It's all about saving lives.”

In 2014, there here were 52,636 DUI arrests in Pennsylvania, PennDOT spokeswoman Juliann Sheldon said. Also last year, there were 10,537 alcohol-related crashes in Pennsylvania, resulting in 326 fatalities.

“The ultimate goal is to prevent people from driving impaired,” said Baldwin Borough police Lt. Matthew Kearns, coordinator of the South Hills DUI Task Force.

The South Hills DUI Task Force received $45,000 from PennDOT this year for efforts to reduce impaired driving, police said. One sobriety checkpoint, which includes paying for officer time, costs $5,000 to $6,000.

The task force also conducts roving patrols and, along with the Baldwin Borough police department, hosts field-sobriety training for officers, and DUI checkpoint training and refresher courses.

Months of planning goes into the checkpoint, where officers look at statistics for crashes and driving under the influence arrests to choose a location, they said.

Twenty-four officers from South Hills police departments and state police participated in the July 4 checkpoint.

On July 4, five drivers were arrested on DUI charges. One person attempted to drive through the checkpoint and faced additional charges.

As each vehicle pulled up to the checkpoint, the officers asked the question. Yet, many, they found didn't have proper licenses, registrations or inspection stickers, so the vehicles were sent into the Kennywood parking lot, a staging area for the night, where they were cited.

During the check, police said they see many things other than impaired drivers, such as drug possession and gun violations. On July 4, one person was arrested in connection with a protection-from-abuse order violation, police said. Forty-eight other citations were issued, including 19 for driving under suspension, two for driving while DUI suspended, nine for drivers who did not possess a license and 10 for expired inspections.

When officers suspect that a driver is impaired, they walk the person away from the car to a state police officer in the staging area who then administers standardized field sobriety tests.

If the officer thinks the person is impaired, a phlebotomist is on site to draw blood to see if it is over the 0.08 legal limit for the blood-alcohol level.

Family members in the car have a separate area to wait in at the checkpoint while all of this is occurring.

“We're seeing a lot of families in the cars tonight, and this is letting them know that we're out here to keep them safe,” Sabol said.

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