Drunk Driving Survey Raises Hackles

A driver in Reading, Pa., has filed a lawsuit accusing the city, its police chief and a nonprofit research center of violating his constitutional rights after he was waved him off the road into a parking lot and asked about his drug and alcohol use. Surveyors working for the research group also asked for a mouth swab to test him for impairing substances like alcohol and prescription drugs.

The motorist is among thousands of Americans who have been pulled off the road and surveyed about drunk and drugged driving by contractors for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The public outcry about the survey’s intrusiveness has traffic safety officials and advocates defending the research as a valuable, lifesaving policy tool.

In 2007, the highway safety agency faced concerns about a Maryland-based contractor that collected survey data in an aggressive manner and tested survey participants with a passive alcohol detection device without their informed consent.

The National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving is a nationwide snapshot of impaired driving that the agency has been conducting since the early 1970s. This time around, contractors have offered participants money in exchange for blood and saliva samples for alcohol and drug testing, and the results are supposed to be entirely anonymous. One woman told the Associated Press that her cooperation was voluntary and earned her “an easy $65.”

But critics say the survey tramples civil liberties because motorists are pulled off the highway at imposing roadblocks, often manned by law enforcement, and feel pressured into complying with requests for blood and saliva samples.

The 2013-2014 survey, which is nearly complete, first made headlines near Dallas/Fort Worth. The police chief in Ft. Worth apologized to the public for his department’s participation in a November roadblock that made drivers feel pressured, bewildered, and angry, NBC 5 in Fort Worth reported. The chief said citizen outcry over the survey was merited, and he promised not to engage in any future federal surveys that would violate public trust with the police.

Advocates for the survey include Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Both organizations are invested in reducing drunk and drugged driving accidents and deaths nationwide. The president of the Insurance Institute said the survey is a critical component of efforts to prevent impaired driving.