U.S. transportation officials on Wednesday responded to mounting questions about the tactics used by a roadside survey on drinking and drugged driving by announcing that survey-takers will no longer collect breath samples from motorists without their consent.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said its contractor will get motorists' permission before using a device called a passive alcohol sensor. Survey-takers had been using the device to gather breath samples from motorists before they could either agree to take part in the survey or refuse and drive away, belying the government's contention that citizen participation was entirely voluntary.
Acting Administrator David Friedman announced the change at a House subcommittee hearing in Washington.
Lawmakers are looking into how the survey is being conducted amid complaints that motorists were forced off the road for the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving, the government's periodic effort to measure the prevalence of impaired driving.
"I'm certainly supportive of research on drunk driving, but I'm concerned that motorists who encounter these surveys are not properly informed the survey is voluntary," Tom Petri, R-Wis., chairman of the House Highway and Transit Subcommittee, told Friedman. "We are increasingly living in a society where people are worrying about Big Brother, and government overstepping its bounds in a number of different areas, and I think we need to be sensitive to that."
The roadside survey began last year in 60 cities around the country, the fifth time it's been conducted since 1973.
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 subjected to the passive alcohol sensor, then questioned about their drinking and driving habits, asked to take a more precise breath test and offered money if they provide saliva and blood samples or agree to answer a written survey. Survey respondents who are found to be impaired are either driven home or put up in a hotel.
Officials have said that the passive alcohol sensor — which can collect breath samples several inches from a person's face — allowed researchers to maximize the amount of data they collect while helping them get impaired drivers off the road. A 2007 survey methodology said that a particular brand was chosen because it was "less obvious and intimidating" than larger sensors, and could be used before the motorist's "consent or refusal of the survey."
Friedman said Wednesday that NHTSA is "removing the initial use of an air sampler to test the level of alcohol on people's breath, to ensure that we get their consent first before gathering any data."
Lawmakers also questioned the use of uniformed police officers at the survey sites, saying their presence could suggest to motorists that their participation is compulsory.
"What I'd like you to do, if you could, is to address the concerns of the citizens I'm dealing with regarding the term 'volunteer,' and how it's perceived," said Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa.
Friedman pointed out that a large orange sign advises motorists that it is a "paid voluntary survey." He estimated that a quarter of all motorists who are flagged to go into the site simply continue driving, though motorists at survey sites in Texas and Pennsylvania previously told The Associated Press that they felt they had no choice but to pull over.
"The public is clearly, we're hearing from them they are concerned about this," Petri said.
Friedman replied, "I understand those concerns and we've continued to take those concerns very seriously."