The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said it will revise how it conducts a research program on whether drivers are using drugs and alcohol behind the wheel in the face of criticism from some members of Congress.
Acting Administrator David Friedman told a House panel 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 uses 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.
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.”
On other issues, Friedman said the department plans to award $2 million in pedestrian safety grants soon.
He also said that under tougher criteria, few states are qualifying for grants under a 2012 federal law. For the current budget year, just one state qualified for distracted driving grants, none for the teen graduated driver license grants and four for ignition interlock grants — for use of devices that require convicted drunken drivers to blow into a device when starting a car. “NHTSA hopes that more states will qualify in the future and NHTSA stands ready to provide technical assistance to Congress as it considers revising these grant programs,” Friedman said.
Be sure to visit The Detroit News for the original article.
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