THE Supreme Court struck a small blow for freedom last week - the freedom of millions of motorists and their passengers to travel a bit more safely on the nation's streets and highways. They will be safer because some drunk drivers will be taken from behind the wheel at police checkpoints. The court ruled 6 to 3 that police may set up roadblocks to check all drivers passing through them for signs of intoxication. Such ``sobriety checkpoints'' are used by police in many states, especially on weekend nights and holidays. The constitutionality of the practice was in question, however, because of rulings in seven state courts that the roadblocks violate the Fourth Amendment's restriction on unreasonable searches and seizures.
The justices found the checkpoints to be reasonable. The majority determined that state and local governments' interest in curbing drunk-driving carnage outweighs the minimal intrusion on motorists.
Typically, drivers are delayed only briefly - an average of 25 seconds for the Michigan roadblock in question - for questioning by an officer. Only if the officer detects clear signs of drinking is a driver asked to step from his car for a field sobriety test. Thus the minor intrusiveness of the check is little greater than that of airport metal detectors.
The dissenting justices hinted darkly that the indiscriminate roadblocks are a step down the path to a police state. The contention seems overwrought.
Critics of sobriety checkpoints say they are inefficient (only about 1 percent of stopped drivers are arrested for drunkenness). But the checkpoints probably have an immeasurable deterrent effect.
About 23,000 Americans are killed each year in drunk-driving accidents, and hundreds of thousands are injured. In upholding a reasonable device to bring down those horrifying numbers, the Supreme Court didn't restrict people's freedom, but enhanced it.