Sunday, January 1, 2012

I Don't Know Why They #RIDE-in' So High

Happy New Year! If you're reading this, it means that you weren't struck and killed by a drunk driver last night; good for you! New Year's Eve is one of those dates that draws drunks to steering wheels like moths to a flame, and though it doesn't appear that anyone in the Lower Mainland is dead thanks to a drunk driver, the lead story on CBC British Columbia deals with a suspected drunk that totalled an RCMP cruiser. Hell of a way to start 2012, right?

The fact is, even if that's the case, there were people out and about yesterday doing what they could to help people drive drunk.

I'm not sure if it's done in British Columbia, but for the last thirty-five years Ontario's RIDE program - initially just in the city of Etobicoke, but province-wide for as long as I can remember - which is essentially a series of checkpoints on the roads where police officers might pull you over to find out whether or not you blow high on the breathalyzer. The program is active all year and news articles about drunks arrested at RIDE checkpoints aren't unheard of no matter what month it is, but the only time you're actually likely to encounter a checkpoint is around a long weekend, Christmas, or New Year's Eve, for the simple reason that more people tend to drink and drive at those times. As I've never been stopped at a RIDE checkpoint, nor do I know of anyone who has been, I can't really give any more details than that. A similar program is, I understand, run in Alberta under the Checkstop name.

So, for decades, this is how it's been. If someone was idiotic enough to drink and get behind the wheel, they ran the risk of being found out by the police - and then the mobile internet started its little revolution. This past Christmas Eve, a number of people got it in their heads to broadcast the locations of RIDE and Checkstop locations over Twitter. After the initial shock and outrage among a wide section of the tweeting population, people struck back on New Year's Eve by appending the #RIDE and #Checkstop hashtags to irrelevant messages - the goal being to bury the messages that actually contained checkpoint information. What followed was something of a hashtag arms race, with the checkpoint-busters switching to new hashtags and using anonymous accounts to spread information by direct messages invisible to everyone but the sender and recipient. In a Twitter war like this it's nigh-impossible to tell with any certainty which side "won," but I suppose the real winners are people who didn't get killed by a drunk driver last night.

Still, why would anyone tweet the checkpoint locations to begin with? Well, it's complicated.

The Christmas lights are there to make drunks doubt their perceptions. Well, not really - but wouldn't that be something?

For some people it comes down to liberty - and as much as it makes me gnash my teeth, I can understand that. Ten American states have outlawed sobriety checkpoints for exactly that reason. For some people, the idea of the police being able to stop people at random with the "reasonable suspicion" being "a lot of people try to drive drunk around now." So, yeah, I can see where they're coming from - but the issue here is there is a world of difference between taking issue with what they see as overly intrusive police, and actively working to subvert the system.

"RIDE was the beginning of the end of civil liberty in Canada," argued one of the checkpoint tweeters, who hid behind an anonymous account but appears to be from the Calgary area. "Once the precedent is established that police can stop you, question you, order you out of your vehicle, demand identification, etc, etc when they have absolutely no reasonable grounds to believe you have or are committing a crime it is all over for our freedoms. In a few decades we have gone from RIDE to cops issuing summary judgements at the side of the road to the G20 outrage. Where will a few more decades take us?"

The slippery slope is an attractive idea when you're standing up against what you feel is dreadfully wrong, a clear and present danger to society as you see it. Arguing that sobriety checkpoints represent the creeping advancement of government controls, however, feels overly simplistic to me; a transition from a free and democratic state to a police state is something that happens on multiple fronts, and the growth of increasingly militarized police forces - witness, say, Occupy Oakland, and the manner in which the Oakland Police Department conducted itself - is far more threatening to liberty than a limited network of flying checkpoints. Washington is one of the ten states that outlaws the checkpoints, and yet it had the Battle of Seattle in 1999.

"Absolutely," our anonymous Albertan said when asked if he or she really believed tweeting the locations of sobriety checkpoints was the right thing to do. "If your government wanted to curb drinking and driving, they'd make alcohol illegal."

It really is amazing what people can justify to themselves. I mean, have people already forgotten about Prohibition? Have people forgotten that the "moral crusade" was a horrific flop that took an honest industry, pushed it underground, gave organized crime an incredible opportunity to grow, and resulted in what may have been the drunkest decades of the twentieth century?

Really, you think that random spot-checks on the roads to catch people who are operating heavy, potentially deadly machinery while drunk is a blow against liberty and a step toward the police state, but banning something as ubiquitous and culturally important as alcohol isn't? What planet did this person come from?

Yes, both the United States Constitution and the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms enshrine freedom of movement. In a real police state, it wouldn't matter what mode of transportation you're using should you come across a checkpoint, if you're driving or walking or sitting in a little red wagon being pulled by a pony. You'd still need your papers, please. Sobriety checkpoints are targetted specifically at people who are driving - people who do not appreciate the damage that can be easily done with a car at speed. That appreciation is one of the reasons why I gave up my driver's license.

Sure, it's a new year... but people will keep using the same old eyes.

1 comment:

  1. Reminding people (via social media) that they are out there might make someone think twice and get a ride.
    Posting on Social Media also assists sober drivers to avoid traffic tie-ups.
    Let the PEOPLE decide their own actions with regards to reading social media posts about checkstops.
    What people do with tweet information is their choice in a FREE SOCIETY.
    Police even use media to advertise where their radar traps are located. No different with public using social media to relay checkstop info.