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Debate: Random sobriety tests for drivers

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Are random breath tests for drivers a good idea?

Background and context

Random breath testing of drivers for excess alcohol in the blood is a policy that intends to bring down the number of drink drivers. The European Commission believes that the police forces of all member states of the European Union should be able to conduct random breath tests. This could, for example, involve officers being sent to a different
road every day and pulling over perhaps every hundredth car to subject its driver to a compulsory breathalyser test. If the driver failed the test, they would be prosecuted and mostly likely punished. However, some countries (such as the UK) have laws that state that drivers can only be tested if officers have a reason to believe that they have been drinking, usually because of the erratic manner in which they have been driving. This has therefore been a debate in Europe for some time. Random breath testing for alcohol is currently legal in several EU countries, and in Australia, where drivers may be stopped at any point along any road by a police officer for a "random breath test", commonly referred to as an "RBT". In the United Stated, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers has been lobbying across the country to implement random alcohol tests. Many states and municipalities have implemented such checks and many others are considering the idea.


Rights: Are random searches consistent with individual rights?


  • Random sobriety tests are a just public safety intervention Robert Solomon, a law professor at the University of Western Ontario and the director of legal policy for MADD Canada, argues that Canada should implement a RBT program because it is doing a bad job at combating drinking and driving. “We have one of the worst records for impaired driving of any comparable democracies." In a paper he co-authored in 2010, it was reported the level of death and injury due to impaired driving peaked in the early 1980s, declined until 2000 and then stalled. The totals for 2007, in fact, were worse than seven years earlier: 210,000 impairment-related crashes, 1,239 deaths, 73,120 injuries. All of this, he argues, justifies RBT as a public safety intervention.
  • Operating dangerous vehicle requires giving up some rights. The U.S. Supreme Court held in 1991 that a sobriety-checkpoint program in Michigan did not violate the Fourth Amendment to the federal Constitution. The reasoning by six of the nine justices was that driving a car is a dangerous and regulated activity, and that citizens in their cars are not as immune from police intrusions as when they are in their own homes.[1]
  • It is not evading privacy to check for crime. All the high-flown nonsense about the privacy of the individual being invaded and so forth must be dismissed. It’s blowing into a tube for goodness sakes! Occasionally having to do that is a fair price to pay for being trusted with a huge lump of speeding metal (i.e. a car) – oh, and many lives might be saved, into the bargain. Have a sense of perspective!
  • Random breath tests are routinely carried out with public vehicle drivers. It can hardly be called an invasion of privacy or an investigation without due cause, because random tests are routinely carried out by many train companies and are being introduced on airlines.
  • RBT just an extension of already strict driving regulations. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): "Driving is a heavily regulated, licensed activity occurring on public roads. Drivers are already required to stop and provide documentation when requested by police, and expect to be asked questions about their licenses and sobriety. The Canadian courts have upheld the constitutionality of this random stopping, searching and questioning of drivers in order to maintain traffic safety. RBT would simply be an extension of these court-approved interventions."[2]


  • Random sobriety tests amount to unreasonable searches. "Random breath tests for DUI is a bad idea." Canadian Cincinnatus. October 7th, 2009: "This idea is absolutely flat out wrong. In a free society it should be the case that a citizen can move about at will without ever being hindered by the police. The job of the police officer, who used to be called a peace officer, is to keep the public peace. If the public peace has not been broken he should leave well enough alone, not go around making criminals out of people minding their own business. It is for that reason that the traditional requirement of ‘reasonable grounds” was put into place."
  • Randomly testing employees is different than testing citizens. People who have to take random breath tests to drive trucks or fly planes as part of their jobs are taking the test as part of their job. They are being paid and must do what their employer wants them to do in order to keep their job. Searching random people outside of the context of employment with no suspicion of a crime erodes civil liberties and sets a dangerous precedent.
  • Random breath tests make alot of people angry. Generally speaking, inconveniencing innocent people and introducing in their lives with random sobriety tests will make many people angry. Whether or not that anger is justified is another matter; the anger itself is a negative externality of random breath tests that should be considered.
  • Utility of stopping every car doesn't justify breach of rights. Dissenting US Supreme Court justices argued in a case that struck down an effort to ban random drug tests in Michigan, arguing: "That stopping every car might make it easier to prevent drunken an insufficient justification for abandoning the requirement of individualized suspicion."[3]
  • Random sobriety tests can be implemented unequally. Canadian Liberal MP Ujjal Dosanjh and the former attorney general of British Columbia and a member of the House justice committee: "I wouldn’t want the east side of Vancouver monitored more than the west side of Vancouver because there is a clear economic division in the city."[4]
  • Innocent do have something to fear from unjust searches. "Random Breath Testing Violates Charter Rights" Green Party of Canada. March 4th, 2010: "The 'logic' that the innocent have nothing to fear from such searches rests on the presumption that there is never a miscarriage of justice by the authorities. If we remove Charter protection, then we have only the good judgement of the authorities to rely on. History tells us that by itself this is not enough."

Efficacy: Are they effective at stopping/deterring drunk driving?


  • Random breath tests help deter drunk driving Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): "RBT deters impaired driving by increasing the perceived chance of detection. For example, in New South Wales, 90% of drivers surveyed thought they might be breath tested."[5]
A 1995 review by the European Transport Safety Council concluded, “There is wide agreement in the international scientific literature that increasing driver’s perception of the risk of being detected for excess alcohol is a very important element in any package of measures to reduce alcohol related crashes.”[6]
  • People drive drunk because they can get away with it Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD): "Millions of Canadians continue to drink and drive because they can do so with little fear of being stopped, let alone charged and convicted. Recent survey results and charge and conviction data indicate you could drive drunk once a week for more than 3 years before ever being charged with an impaired driving offence, and for over 6 years before ever being convicted. Other survey data would put the figures closer to 6 and a half years before a charge, and nearly 13 years before a conviction."[7]
  • Random alcohol breath tests reduce accidents, save lives The Centers for Disease Control, in a 2002 Traffic Injury Prevention report, found that in general, the number of alcohol related crashes was reduced by 20% in states that implement sobriety checkpoints compared to those that do not. Oregon State Sen. Rod Monroe, D-Portland, extrapolates that such a reduction would mean 30 fewer alcohol-related deaths on Oregon highways, 2,100 fewer serious injuries and millions of dollars in savings to the health care system. Those would be substantial gains.[8]
  • Random alcohol tests are more effective than alternative measures. The federal Justice Department of Canada moved to implement Random Breath Testing (RBT), concluding: "a system of random checks is more effective than a combination of other measures such as a lower threshold for blood alcohol level and more frequent RIDE checkpoints."[9]


  • Random breath testing doesn't necessarily lower drunk driving Many countries have had random testing for some time and have seen no real fall in drink driving figures. For those that have seen such a fall, can you distinguish the effects of random testing from the accompanying advertising and awareness campaigns, which can also be conducted without the testing?
  • Little evidence random alcohol tests deter drunk driving. There is a dearth of research regarding the deterrent effect of checkpoints. The only formally documented research regarding deterrence is a survey of Maryland's "Checkpoint Strikeforce" program. The survey found no deterrent effect: "To date, there is no evidence to indicate that this campaign, which involves a number of sobriety checkpoints and media activities to promote these efforts, has had any impact on public perceptions, driver behaviors, or alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and injuries. This conclusion is drawn after examining statistics for alcohol-related crashes, police citations for impaired driving, and public perceptions of alcohol-impaired driving risk."[10]
  • Everyone knows drunk driving is wrong. Of course drink driving is wrong. You are wasting time trying to convince us of that – we all know it. The debate has to be about whether random testing will do anything, and whether it is proportionate to the problem concerned. People still continue to drink drive regardless of knowing they are breaking the law and aware that they may be breath tested. Roads and transport ministers in Australia have even been booked for drink driving.
  • Most drunk driver aren't caught through random breath tests. The majority of people caught drink driving have not been from random breath tests. They have been from tip-offs, police chases and police pulling over suspects, not random breath testing. Drink driving crime rates have barely gone down in most countries since it was started.

Police resources: Are they a good use of police time/resources?


  • Good use of police to cultivate awareness on drunk driving. Guaranteeing a culture of awareness that the driver might be subjected to testing – and thereby ensuring people drink responsibly – can be achieved by random testing. It’s a good investment of police time, which will ensure a cultural change that is desperately needed. If, as the opposition alleges, officers falsify the results, then that is against regulations and they should be investigated for it – as they were in Western Australia.
  • Police are already performing random alcohol stops. In reality, even where random testing is not allowed, most officers realise that this is necessary – that is why they often make up reasons to stop people (like claiming they were driving erratically) in order to carry out a de facto random testing system already.
  • Random breath tests worthwhile: stop offenders, keep roads safe. You cannot say that random breath testing is a waste of money. They act not only as a detterent to drink driving, but they catch offenders who aren't deterrent. Advertsing alongside random breath testing also works to lower road death rates and keep innocent pedestrians and car passengers safer. You cannot say that saving lives is a waste of money.


  • Police time is better spent pursing proper offenders. Police time is better spent pursuing those about whom there are concrete suspicions, rather than trawling society at large in the hope of turning something up. Most random breath tests deliver negative alcohol results and it mostly a waste of time. Also, because it is random, offenders could get past while police test thousands of innocent drivers. Since police officers realise this they often (as happened in Western Australia) falsify the information for tests, making up tests, etc. in order to get the requirement to conduct them out of the way – so they can do proper police work.
  • Police money is better spent catching concrete offenders. Instead of wasting innocent drivers' time and government and police money, police should crack down on concrete offenders, not try to catch people they don't suspect have been drinking. And because the tests are random, offenders can easily get away.

Accurate readings? Are breath test readings fair and accurate?


  • The technology used is becoming increasingly accurate. The technology used for testing is becoming more and more accurate. Furthermore, attacks on it are oppositions to any sort of breath-testing for drink driving, not just random testing. Presumably the opposition don’t think that we should stop testing completely?


  • Different people absorb alcohol at different rates. Bodies absorb alcohol at different rates. This results in very unfair readings – some people will have very little to drink (and be in control), yet still trigger the machine, whilst others will have had more, and are still ‘ok.’ Furthermore, breath test kits make mistakes all the time – that is why people have the right to go for a second test at the police station.

Self-regulations: Can individuals self-regulate?


  • Alcohol causes poor judgement. The opposition can hardly rely on the notion that individuals should be allowed to judge for themselves, since the very point is that people have consistently failed to behave responsibly – that’s why we need testing at all. After all, one of the key effects of alcohol is that it clouds judgement. This is also an opposition to testing in general rather than just random testing.


  • Individuals should be able to judge whether they are okay to drive. It is still legal to have a drink and then drive – but the culture of nanny state control is increasingly meaning that self-righteous moral pundits condemn people for doing so, when in truth it should be up to the individual to judge whether they are ok to drive. People should be judged by the consequences of their actions, not by theoretical possibilities. Having random tests will only add to this.

Pro/con sources



See also

External links and resources


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