Field sobriety testEnlarge Photo
Back in November, some motorists in Fort Worth, Texas had an unusual and unnerving experience: according to a report at NBC DFW, "Some drivers in North Fort Worth on Friday were stopped at a police roadblock and directed into a parking lot where they were asked by federal contractors for samples of their breath, saliva and even blood."
That may sound like a sobriety checkpoint, but it wasn't: it was part of a data-collection project overseen by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The agency's goal was to gather statistics on the frequency of impaired driving, but according to Detroit News, the outcome was outrage from members of the U.S. Congress. Last week, NHTSA officials were brought to Capitol Hill for questioning by a panel convened by the House Transportation Committee.
In its defense, NHTSA said that the program was both voluntary and anonymous. However, several of those tested in Fort Worth say that they had no choice, but were instead forced to pull over, and at least one motorist noted that the passive breath-testing began before drivers had given their consent to participate.
During the hearing, NHTSA also pointed out that the program has been running for 40 years and that participants were compensated for their time -- $10 for a cheek swab, $50 for a blood draw. The current, $8 million survey has been running for over two years and is expected to wrap up later in 2014.NHTSA also claimed that no one has ever been arrested based on the results of such roadside tests.
Despite that, NHTSA officials agreed to re-structure its data-gathering projects in the future. Specifically, it will secure consent from participants before any testing is done, and it will stop using air samplers for passive analysis of drivers' breath.
We understand the importance of gathering data on impaired driving, but how NHTSA could've ever green-lighted this kind of project is beyond us.
Even the most confident, law-abiding driver is likely to feel a little intimidated by a checkpoint -- and although NHTSA might argue that the tests don't use "checkpoints" per se, that's exactly what it feels like when drivers are forced to the side of the road. Having the tests conducted by police officers -- even off-duty officers, as happened in Fort Worth -- makes the situation that much harrowing. Who's going to say "no" in that situation?
Bottom line: it's important to get data on drivers, but it's equally important to maintain public trust. NHTSA failed on that count, hands down.