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 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.