Congress bars NHTSA from conducting roadside survey

David Shepardson
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Congress is barring the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from conducting a research program on whether drivers are using drugs and alcohol behind the wheel in the face of criticism from some members of Congress.

The 1,600-page $1 trillion spending bill approved by the U.S. House late Thursday includes a provision that bars NHTSA from using funds to complete its “National Roadside Survey” that has been conducted for four decades. The Senate is expected to vote on the bill as early as Friday.

The program came under criticism in Texas earlier this year prompting questions from Congress.

NHTSA Deputy Administrator David Friedman told a House panel in March that NHTSA has decided to drop the use of an air sampler of drivers’ alcohol use in a national roadside survey — to “make sure we get their consent first” and to emphasize that it will only collect data from participants who are willing to participate and that all data is anonymous.

“It’s also important to note this is a voluntary survey that collects anonymous data,” Friedman told the House Transportation Committee’s panel on highways and transit. “I believe we take every effort to make sure that is clear.”

Since a TV station in Texas aired a program about a checkpoint in Fort Worth in which off-duty officers set up checkpoints and ordered motorists off the road at random to collect samples, members of Congress have raised questions. The police chief in Fort Worth apologized, while other media outlets have reported on concerns about the program.

NHTSA has used the research to develop programs to prevent or reduce unsafe behaviors of road users and to promote safe driving behaviors by determining how many drivers are impaired behind the wheel — by surveying drivers in 60 cities.

NHTSA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment early Friday.

In March, Friedman noted that the survey has been conducted for 40 years — and no survey participant has ever been arrested for drunken driving for taking part in the survey.

Drivers are asked to give a saliva sample or check swab and are paid $10 to $50. The nearly $8 million survey is scheduled to be completed this year.

Friedman emphasized it is a voluntary program — and noted that about a quarter of the participants drive off without taking part. A large orange sign is present at the checkpoint to emphasize that it is a voluntary paid survey and not a police checkpoint.

Drivers who are intoxicated aren’t arrested or stopped. Friedman acknowledged off-duty police help with the survey to ensure the safety of participants.

Rep. Tom Petri, R-Wis., who chairs the committee that held the hearing, raised concerns that motorists aren’t properly informed.

“It could appear to motorists that they were driving into a DUI checkpoint,” Petri said. “Increasingly, we are living in a society where people are worried about ‘Big Brother’ ... and we need to be sensitive to that.”

The Governors Highway Safety Association criticized Congress for defunding the study calling it “a destructive effort to turn back the clock on highway safety progress”

Separately, the spending bill includes another provision barring NHTSA from requiring “global positioning system (GPS) tracking in private passenger motor vehicles without providing full and appropriate consideration of privacy concerns.”

NHTSA has not proposed any such mandate.