The Fort Campbell Installation Provost Marshal Office, or PMO, is mounting a high-visibility DUI prevention campaign heading into Alcohol Awareness Month in April as part of an effort meant to pro-mote safety among Soldiers and Families.
“Driving impaired is actually one of the the No. 1 killers of motorists,” said Lt. Nicholas Pietila, traffic supervisor, traffic management and collision investigations division, PMO. “The bad judgment that comes with it tends to have people violate safety rules such as speeding, being able to stop their vehicle safely and being able to maintain a lane. It makes someone who normally would be a good-quality, safe and prudent driver unable to do so.”
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 28 people in the U.S. die in drunk driving crashes each day. Fort Campbell hasn’t added onto that statistic in 2021, and the PMO’s sobriety checkpoints may be a factor.
Officers most recently had checkpoints 10:30 p.m.-2 a.m. March 17, stopping 838 inbound and outbound vehicles at three access gates. None of those drivers were impaired, which Pietila said is by design.
“Our desire is not to catch people and charge them with a DUI,” he said. “That’s a secondary measure, but the intent is to modify driver behavior so people don’t drive impaired.”
That means putting the word out about upcoming checkpoints through social media and other outlets. Word travels quickly from there as friends warn each other about the police presence.
“We try to mitigate traffic to be the simplest and safest that we can deal with for the officers involved,” Pietila said. “Usually if there’s a two-lane road, we’ll use cones and vehicles with our emergency lights so everybody sees us, because we want to be highly visible.”
For most drivers, hitting a sobriety checkpoint means a quick conversation with an officer before continuing.
“We’ll ask them where they’re coming from and where they’re going to kind of establish a quick rapport, make conversation and see what their personal demeanor is,” Pietila said. “It’s to give us a good snapshot, 30 seconds to one minute, to determine if there are signs of impairment.”
Drivers with slurred speech, bloodshot eyes or other impairment indicators are pulled over and given a standardized field sobriety test. That doesn’t necessarily lead to an arrest, but it can if the subject shows enough signs of impairment.
Officers have also been trained to identify drug-related impairments, which Pietila said make up an increasing share of DUIs.
“DUI alcohol impairment, last I heard, is actually on a 15-year low,” he said. “But the No. 1 rising impairment is drug impairment, especially with the proliferation of legal marijuana throughout different states.”
Being charged with a DUI can prove expensive to Soldiers and Families even if they avoid a life-threatening crash.
“The bottom line is it’s quite costly monetarily,” Pietila said. “Between court costs, towing fees, lawyer costs and fines, the last estimate I saw from the Tennessee Highway Safety Office is that a first-time DUI costs about $10,000.”
That figure can grow higher for repeat offenders, and Soldiers can lose their driving privileges on post for at least a year.
“You might be able to drive outside the gate, but you can’t drive on Fort Campbell,” Pietila said. “There also can be jail time, not to mention a judge can decide to enforce sobriety with an interlock device.”
To avoid a DUI charge, Pietila recommends people arrange for designated drivers or pickups if they plan to consume alcohol.
“One of the things we like to promote are all the different ride-sharing services,” he said. “I remember being a young Soldier stationed at Fort Campbell, and times when you would try to find a taxi toward the end of the evening. You were talking an hour to two-hour wait because there just weren’t enough taxis to pick people up, and that’s not the case anymore.”
Drivers also should practice safe and responsible behavior whether or not they’re expecting to pass an officer, and Pietila hopes the checkpoints help people keep that in mind.
“What we’re trying to do is called high-visibility enforcement,” he said. “’Sobriety checkpoint’ sounds like it checks people who are in the process of driving impaired, and the reality is that’s not the case. Its intent is to deter, and that’s a serious priority for us to maintain the safety of Fort Campbell motorists.”