Is NHTSA’s roadside drugged driving survey really voluntary?

When the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration last performed its national roadside survey in 2014, motorists and civil libertarians were concerned. The survey is supposed to be a random, completely voluntary survey of drivers who are compensated for their willingness to provide breath, saliva or blood tests. The purpose is to get a baseline sense of how many drivers drink or use drugs. It is not meant as a law enforcement sting.

The last survey, however, was conducted in a heavy-handed fashion. Police roadblocks were set up, which forced drivers to stop so they could be encouraged to take part in the allegedly voluntary test. On top of that, passive alcohol sensors were employed to detect traces of alcohol, so the drivers were essentially alcohol-tested without their consent, which raised privacy concerns.

The officer-assisted survey led to a lawsuit and congressional action. Lawmakers withheld funding for further roadside surveys and continue to do so. They also told NHTSA and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to report back on how the issues would be resolved.

“While participation in the survey is random, voluntary, and compensated, civil libertarians have raised concerns about the presence of uniformed officers at the survey sites as the driving public may confuse survey sites with mandatory law enforcement checkpoints,” reads the Senate report on the funding ban.

The GAO reported back that NHTSA had already begun to address motorists’ concerns when the funding was cut. After the outcry, researchers began directing traffic to pull over, rather than police officers. The officers were still there, but remained “in the background.” Moreover, the watchdog agency said that NHTSA’s methodology had already satisfied industry stakeholders.

Those stakeholders included law enforcement agencies and organizations such as the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Society for Forensic Toxicologists, and the insurer AAA, which profits from insurance increases resulting from traffic citations and drunk or drugged driving arrests.

None of those stakeholders had any privacy concerns, noted a GAO analyst. That said, we wouldn’t expect law enforcement-related groups or an insurance company to share the concerns of motorists.

Do you think giving a saliva or blood test feels voluntary when there are police “in the background”? Would it matter if you would be paid $10 for a saliva sample or $50 for a blood test? Or would you still have privacy concerns?

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