House Committee To Investigate NHTSA's Roadside Blood And Saliva 'Surveys'

from the 40-years-in-the-making dept

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) probably expected its latest round of blood and saliva draws (all strictly voluntary, of course, if you don’t find a heavy police presence “compelling” — which most people do) to go almost unnoticed. After all, it had been performing these random tests (meant to provide data on impaired driving) since 1973 without raising concerns, so why should 2013’s be any different?

Well, a heightened awareness of casually abrogated civil liberties, something that has been steadily growing for the last several years (and pushed into overdrive by Ed Snowden’ leaks), finally turned the public against the NHTSA’s blood-and-saliva (and cops!) roadshow. The chief of the Ft. Worth, Texas police department offered a sincere and contrite apology after being forced to take a look at how its participation affected its relationship with the public. By the end of that episode, the police chief had vowed his officers would never participate in these “voluntary” draws again.

Over in Pennsylvania, Reading police weren’t nearly as apologetic. The police chief there actually claimed “police presence” alone couldn’t “force” people to do something they didn’t want to do. One man’s experience suggested otherwise. According to his claim, “voluntary” meant answering the same questions over and over before finally (and reluctantly) being allowed to continue on his way. This resulted in him filing a lawsuit against the city and police department (along with the private contractor hired by the NHTSA) for violating his rights.

The resulting noise from the NHTSA’s latest “survey” has apparently found its way to legislators’ ears.

The chairman of the House transportation committee said Thursday he wants to make sure a federal roadside survey on drinking and drugged driving is being conducted appropriately after motorists complained about being forced off the road and asked to provide breath, blood and saliva samples.

Rep. Bill Shuster said his committee will investigate the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving, the government’s periodic effort to determine how many of the nation’s motorists are driving while drunk or high.

The defenders of these surveys believe they provide valuable information on drunk/drugged drivers. But the way the NHTSA performs these surveys is very questionable.

Motorists are randomly selected – either by a uniformed police officer or a private contractor working for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – and waved into a parking lot, where they are questioned about their drinking and driving habits, asked to take a breath test and offered money if they provide saliva and blood samples or agree to answer a more extensive written survey.

Federal officials stress the survey is voluntary and anonymous, with survey respondents who are found to be impaired either driven home or put up in a hotel.

Drivers may in fact be “randomly selected,” but a cop waving a car into a parking lot indicates to most drivers that there’s nothing “voluntary” about this survey. (This also turns the defense that cops are just there for “crowd control” and to protect the cash for paying volunteers into a complete lie.) A cop being on hand also would give impaired drivers reason to believe participating in this survey will result in their arrest. The fact that officers participating in the survey were using passive alcohol detectors to gauge impairment levels without consent takes this another step away from “voluntary.”

The private contractor being sued in Pennsylvania was apparently operating outside the NHTSA’s guidelines (but with the implicit blessing of the Reading police department).

The AP reported last month that concerns about the study date at least as far back as 2007, with a survey methodology describing the tactics used by the Calverton, Md.-based contractor, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, as “not routine by any means.”

For what it’s worth, this contractor has voluntarily agreed to cease all collection efforts on behalf of the NHTSA for the duration of the lawsuit. (It has also asked that the lawsuit be tossed, so it’s not really ceding any wrongdoing.)

Between a questionable contractor and a police presence that strongly suggests there’s nothing voluntary about the “survey,” there’s very little that looks “acceptable” about the NHTSA’s collection methods. Legislators are now threatening to hit the NHTSA right in its wallet.

The first salvo could come next week, during a hearing on transportation funding, when House Highway and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, R-Wis., said he intends to press the Obama administration about the survey.

“We need to be sure that the motoring public understands that their participation in this survey is truly voluntary — particularly since uniformed police officers are frequently involved,” he said. “Depending on what we learn, we may need to address this in the transportation reauthorization bill we will be moving later this year.”

If the NHTSA is interested in collecting voluntary data, it needs to drop the police presence. Personnel should be on hand to take care of impaired drivers and collection areas need to be marked with signage that makes it clear that drivers can safely refuse to give samples without fear of reprisal. (Yet another reason to eliminate police presence.)

Beyond that, there’s a long uphill battle awaiting the NHTSA in terms of regaining the public’s trust. The survey is supposedly anonymous, but volunteers are asked to sign a waiver. Even if the police presence is eliminated, there’s still the concern that staffers are recording plate numbers and vehicle makes, whether by hand or using hidden license plate readers. There’s very little the NHTSA can do to convince drivers otherwise.

If this data on impaired driving is truly this important, the agency will need to seriously revamp its collection methods if it ever hopes to collect enough to provide meaningful analysis. Running something truly “voluntary” means dealing with a lot of disappointment. I’m sure the police presence helped “encourage” participation, but it’s a misuse of police resources and an abuse of public trust.

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Comments on “House Committee To Investigate NHTSA's Roadside Blood And Saliva 'Surveys'”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
DogBreath says:

Re: Re:

The house can’t collectively decide which way the bathroom is.

Sure they can. It’s on the Senate Floor.

Same goes for the Senate, as their bathroom is on the House Floor.

The bad news is that The White House is where the toilet paper (made out of the U.S. Constitution) is located.

The really bad news is that there is no plumber.

DB (profile) says:

I’m familiar with this version of ‘voluntary’.

I’ve been stopped at “drunk driving” roadblocks. These are supposedly voluntary, but there isn’t any option involved.

In theory, you can turn around and not “participate” in the roadblock. In real life that will immediately get you pulled over. Depending on the jurisdiction, if you stay in line you’ve implicitly agreed to the search. Regardless if this is true the police officer will tell you that consent is mandatory.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Roadblocks aren’t the same as a survey… and for purposes of a roadblock, they claim you’ve already “consented” to searches of your person just by driving on a public road. Because drunk driving is more important than the fourth amendment.

If you’re wondering why they don’t just call it a roadblock instead of a survey, it’s probably because the roadblocks are prohibited in several states, and they actually do want the survey data for propaganda purposes.

DogBreath says:

Re: Re: Re:

“Mandatory Consent” is in the same oxymoronic boat as “Voluntary Compliance” when it comes to filing your taxes with the IRS. Try not doing your “voluntary compliance” and see how that works out.

We are the IRS. Your income will be assimilated. Your public and private accounts and property will be added to our own. Resistance to taxation is futile. You will “voluntarily” comply… or else.

That One Guy (profile) says:

The logic of such stops employed elsewhere...

‘No your Honor, I most certainly did not rob that man at gunpoint, his act of handing over his wallet and other valuables was completely voluntary.

Now, sure, I may have made it clear at the outset that if he didn’t hand over his valuables things would get very messy, very fast, but it was still his decision to hand over his stuff, a completely voluntary act on his part, and one that neither I, nor the gun pointed at his face, had anything to do with.’

andrew_duane (profile) says:

Don't forget "anonymous"

Lots of comments about voluntary, but don’t forget about the other part of the lie: anonymous.

You are driving your car with license plates on it; chances are that by the time you’ve rolled your window down the cops know who you are by running your plates. Yes, it’s not 100% but it’s close enough for most people to think there is nothing anonymous about this at all.

edpo says:

Data Ethics

“The defenders of these surveys believe they provide valuable information on drunk/drugged drivers. But the way the NHTSA performs these surveys is very questionable.””

Exactly this. I don’t doubt at all that the data collected could be extremely useful for an entirely legitimate research purpose. Unfortunately, the manner of getting the data introduces too many ethical and legal questions that subvert the entire process.

I could probably do a great study on whether or not the mass of the heart in a healthy 20 year old has any correlation to the mass of the liver, but that doesn’t mean a study that killed our 20-year old participants to obtain the hearts and livers would be a wise research methodology.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Data Ethics

“but you’re also relying on people volunteering for a survey”

They aren’t, really. I doubt more than a tiny percentage of the drivers told to pull over consider the thing “voluntary”. The problem of self-selection is probably a big reason why the NHTSA is doing their best to give the impression that it’s mandatory.

lloyd kaufman says:

Roadside Blood and Saliva Surveys

Obama’s police state.
How’bout the FCC trying to put monitors in News Rooms,to “survey” content? What is going on with this guy/gov’t.Why doesn’t The Pres. speak out against these outrages.
Students Debts are worse than ever and young people are being trashed to pay for old richer people’s health and well being.

McEwen Law Firm (user link) says:

If there is someone who is drinking and driving on the same road as myself, then I would want officers to do anything possible to get that driver off the road. This would include blood and saliva test, if necessary, to prove that the person had alcohol in the system when driving. However, there does come a point when the freedoms of people should not be invaded. Are there certain circumstances when the blood and saliva would be tested or is this something that is mandatory? Are there certain types of people who would have their blood and saliva tested, and would it need to be a situation when the person is uncooperative or perhaps unresponsive?

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