In the early 1990s, nearly half of all traffic fatalities in Tennessee each year were alcohol-related. Checkpoint Tennessee was a year-long statewide sobriety checkpoint program intended to deter impaired driving and reduce alcohol-related crashes. It was a joint effort between the Tennessee Department of Transportation, the Governor's Highway Safety Office (GHSO), the Department of Safety, the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The goal was to arrest impaired drivers at checkpoints to get them off the streets, and to spread the message of zero tolerance for drunk driving in Tennessee.
Many concerns over implementing sobriety checkpoints are about resources and cost, so another goal of Checkpoint Tennessee was to prove that it could be effective at reducing drunk-driving fatalities, while using existing personnel resources.
Checkpoints were conducted on weekends in all 95 counties of Tennessee. There were approximately 900 checkpoints within the program year, compared to only about 15 in the preceding year.
The Checkpoint Tennessee program was in place from April 1, 1994, to March 31, 1995. The checkpoints were implemented by the Tennessee Highway Patrol in coordination with local law enforcement agencies. Three checkpoints were set up in at least four counties throughout the state every weekend. “Weekend blitzes” were conducted on five weekends out of the year, with checkpoints conducted in all 95 counties of Tennessee. These took place on the first weekend of the program in April 1994; on the weekends of Memorial Day, July 4th, and Labor Day; and at the end of the program, in March 1995.
At the checkpoints, all motorists were stopped to investigate for suspicion of impairment. If no evidence of impairment was found, they were given a pamphlet on driving under the influence and let go. If they were suspected of impairment, they were given further testing. Officers used several different types of equipment at checkpoints to detect driver impairment, including passive alcohol sensors in flashlights, video cameras, special lighting, cones, reflective vests, generators, signs, and floodlights. Passive alcohol sensors are flashlights with sensors to detect alcohol on the breath as the officer checks the eyes of the suspected drunken driver, and were an integral part of impairment testing at the checkpoints. All of these tools were used to gather evidence of impairment and determine probable cause to arrest impaired drivers. Standardized field sobriety tests were also used to detect impaired drivers.
Checkpoint Tennessee was heavily publicized in mass media outlets in the forms of TV, radio, and print public service announcements (PSAs), brochures, and billboards. Agreements were made with television stations to air the PSAs during primetime hours to maximize the impact of the message. Editorials were published in newspapers, discussing Checkpoint Tennessee and its goals. In addition, schedules for upcoming checkpoints were published in newspapers to make their presence known to the community. Billboards and radio ads were used to spread the message to motorists while they were driving; the billboards were placed on widely traveled highways in the state. Brochures outlining both the details of the program and the state’s drunk driving laws were distributed to the community, along with promotional materials, such as pens, pins, and cups.
The GHSO did research and planning for the program, while the Tennessee Highway Patrol executed the checkpoints with cooperation from local law enforcement agencies. The checkpoints were staffed using existing police resources; at least six troopers and a supervisor were required to staff each checkpoint.
It was believed that since mass media outlets have such a strong influence on society, advertising the program through media outlets would increase awareness of the program and spread the message against impaired driving. The idea was that if the program was widely advertised, people will be deterred from driving while impaired.