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Targeting Drunk Drivers

Susan Cleveland, president of the Loudoun chapter of Mother's Against Drunk Driving (MADD), had an important reason for being out in the freezing air this past Saturday night. With a handful of pamphlets raising awareness for drunk driving, she diligently passed them out to drivers stopped at the Driving Under the Influence (DUI) checkpoint set up by the Sheriff's Office on Church Road in Sterling. Cleveland, who has attended every monthly field sobriety checkpoint in the area since 1989, moved from car to car with a simple message, "Don't drink and drive."

"We try and be visible in the community any way we can," said Cleveland. "We really just try and educate the people so they don't drink and drive."

With a team of volunteers Ñ of which half had been affected by drunk driving, said Cleveland Ñ the organization worked alongside the Sheriff's department until the early hours of Sunday morning.

WHILE THE EFFORTS of Cleveland and other MADD volunteers are important in curbing drunk driving, the ability to prosecute offenders has sometimes proven to be difficult. Failing a field sobriety test provides enough evidence to take a driver into custody, the results however, cannot be used in court. Only the results of an official intoxilyzer can lead to a conviction. In essence, an intoxilyzer is much like a field sobriety breathalyzer, requiring the suspect to breath into a device which senses the level of alcohol in the bloodstream. The intoxilyzer, however, uses a more sophisticated network of sensors, deeming it permissible as evidence in court.

"There are times due to paperwork, transport time and other people in front of you at the jail that a person's body can metabolize the alcohol level," said Major Bob Brendel of the Sheriff's Office Special Operations Division. "It could be between two and three hours before a person is tested."

Brendel said, this has resulted in some offenders being released from suspicion of drunk driving. This loophole, however, has now been closed with the creation of a Mobile Alcohol Testing Unit Ñ a recreational vehicle converted by the Sheriff's Office to hold an official intoxilyzer. Now available at the scene of a sobriety checkpoint, this vehicle cuts down the commute to an intoxilyzer from two to three hours, to roughly two to three minutes.

SITTING IN A parking lot adjacent to the checkpoint on Church Road, the new mobile unit bears an uncanny resemblance to something you would see at a camping site. Originally purchased by the Fire and Rescue Department for use as a mobile command center, renovations proved impossible Ñ rendering the vehicle useless. The Sheriff's Office inherited the vehicle, free of charge, and with the help of the Virginia State Police, acquired the county's third intoxilyzer to be placed in the back of the vehicle.

"We contacted the State Police and told them what we wanted to do," said Brendel. "They were very receptive and helpful."

Now the only agency in the state to have a Mobile Alcohol Testing Unit, the Sheriff's Office is ushering in a new way to combat drunk driving.

Efforts to curb alcohol-related crimes, however, are not limited to the new recreational vehicle-turned Mobile Alcohol Testing Unit. In a separate effort, with the assistance of the Virginia Department of Alcohol Beverage Control, the Sheriff's Office Community Policing Section visited 23 stores in the county, of which 17 had sold alcohol to minors in the past. With only one store found to be in violation of underage sales, this was a dramatic improvement from the past two investigations earlier this year.

"The past two have been 45-50 percent [in violation]," said Kraig Troxell, spokesman for the Sheriff's Office. "This was the third that we conducted this year and we were very pleased."

WITH THE HOLIDAY season upon us, Troxell said that there will be more than the standard one checkpoint per month. With another scheduled for later this month, the Sheriff's Office is really hoping that the Mobile Alcohol Testing Unit won't have to be used.

"The number of cars that pass through the checkpoint ranges from 500-2,000," said Troxell. "Of that we will screen 10-30 but we hope to have none. We are looking for voluntary compliance."

In other words Ñ they want drivers to obey the law.

With more than 1,000 cars passing through the Church Road checkpoint on Saturday evening, 11 drivers were red-flagged and tested for intoxication. Of these tests, three drivers were arrested for driving under the influence.