MPs on Okinawa stepping up efforts to catch drunk drivers
CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — Bobbing flashlights danced across the ground. The line of cars at the only gate into this small camp moved slowly. Each car rolled to a stop under the glaring spotlights as a military policeman, clad in an orange vest, approached.
“Good evening. May I see your license and military ID?” the Marine MP asked.
The driver held out the two cards under the MP’s watchful eyes. Every move is a hint.
“The MP is observing the car’s approach when they come into the gate,” said Capt. Giuseppe Stavale of the Provost Marshal’s Office for Marine Corps Bases Japan. “He’s picking up on clues. Sometimes it’s lane changing. Sometimes stopping at the wrong point or even directionals on when they aren’t needed.”
The “clues” sound harmless enough. It could be just a distracted driver. Or a drunken one.
“We have our Safe and Sober Campaign throughout the year,” Stavale explained, “but during the holiday season, adopt what we call ‘3-D:’ Drunk and Drugged Driving Prevention Month.”
All four services on Okinawa signed onto the 3-D push, which began Dec. 1 and is to run past New Year’s Day. “We’re not saying you can’t go out and have a glass of champagne,” Stavale said. “We’re saying don’t drive impaired.”
Sobriety checkpoints increased this past month at random.
“We respond to drunk driving calls at any time of the day and at every base,” Stavale said. “Most would be at night, but they’re not limited to those hours and not limited to a certain demographic. Also, we don’t want to be predictable.”
Limits are strict. On base, blood-alcohol content of .05-.09 is considered driving under the influence, Stavale said. Anyone with a BAC of .10 or higher is considered driving while intoxicated. Off base, the limits are tighter. Anyone with a BAC of .03 is booked as a DUI.
“That could be less than one drink, depending on the person,” he added.
Licenses are suspended and cars impounded automatically if arrested. Anyone found guilty automatically has driving privileges revoked for the remainder of his or her tour and is subject to non-judicial punishment, even court-martial.
And military police have no latitude about whom they check. “The checks are one hundred percent,” Stavale said. “We had the wife of a lieutenant who is assigned to the Provost Marshal’s Office come through this evening. We checked her just like everyone else.”
“It doesn’t matter if I know them or not,” said Sgt. Kip Hogan, a Marine MP. “I’m out here to do a job. The next person a drunk driver hits could be my family.”
The increased checks have kept them busy, Hogan said. In two hours at this small camp, he estimated, 200 cars were checked, going both on and off the base. All the while, they looked for telltale signs of drinking.
“You can tell if they’ve been drinking usually by the way they behave pulling up,” said Sgt. James Pritchard. “They’re lighting cigarettes or chewing gum. Some try to spray cologne. Others won’t look at you or try talking into their hands so we can’t smell the alcohol.”
But the MPs are trained specifically to look for those types of clues. From the time a car pulls up, MPs constantly are asking questions. License and ID. Where are you coming from? Where are you headed?
“Most people can do two things at once, but if you’re impaired, it becomes difficult to concentrate,” Stavale said. “We intentionally split their attention to see if they can get out their ID and answer questions at the same time.”
Military police also are experimenting with a wand called the “Alco-blow.” Drivers blow into the end of the wand; lights indicate the presence of alcohol.
Some MPs are trained to use a horizontal gaze test, to check for eye deviation. Failed tests lead to an on-scene blood alcohol test and, with confirmation, an arrest.
Statistics for 2002 arrests have yet to be compiled, Stavale said, but the MPs have simplified the arrest process itself.
“With our Mobile Command Post, we can do one-stop shopping for offenders,” he said. “We can do all the testing and processing right here. For the military member, we can call the command duty officer to come receive custody or for civilians and dependents, we’ll call the sponsor.”
Rarely, MPs handcuff combative persons and transport them to detention cells — or for medical observation, if MPs fear alcohol poisoning.
Some commands adopted “arrive-alive” programs, picking up back-to-base taxi fares — to be repaid later. “They’re great ideas because they save lives,” Stavale said.He said more random checkpoints are planned.
“We’re not going to be predictable with this,” he said. “If that’s what it takes to get people thinking, that’s what we’ll do. We can’t emphasize enough our ultimate goal is to save lives and prevent the needless tragedy of someone getting hurt or killed by an impaired driver.”