House committee looking into roadside survey

The chairman of the House transportation committee said Thursday he wants to make sure a federal roadside survey on drinking and drugged driving is being conducted appropriately after motorists complained about being forced off the road and asked to provide breath, blood and saliva samples.

Rep. Bill Shuster said his committee will investigate the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving, the government's periodic effort to determine how many of the nation's motorists are driving while drunk or high.

"While over the years this survey has provided valuable highway safety information, the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee is looking into this issue, and we want to ensure that it is being conducted in an appropriate manner," Shuster, R-Pa., told The Associated Press.

The survey has been conducted five times since 1973. U.S. transportation officials call it a vital tool for monitoring the safety of America's roadways, and groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety support it. But some motorists and civil liberties advocates contend the government's methods are intrusive and unconstitutional.

Conducted in 60 cities around the nation, the survey yields the government's best estimate of the prevalence of impaired driving. 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 questioned about their drinking and driving habits, asked to take a breath test and offered money if they provide saliva and blood samples or agree to answer a more extensive written survey.

Federal officials stress the survey is voluntary and anonymous, with survey respondents who are found to be impaired either driven home or put up in a hotel.

The AP reported last month that concerns about the study date at least as far back as 2007, with a survey methodology describing the tactics used by the Calverton, Md.-based contractor, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, as "not routine by any means." In November, the police chief of Fort Worth, Texas, apologized for his officers' role in the survey and said it wouldn't happen again.

Other members of Congress also expressed concern in the wake of the AP report. The first salvo could come next week, during a hearing on transportation funding, when House Highway and Transit Subcommittee Chairman Tom Petri, R-Wis., said he intends to press the Obama administration about the survey.

"We need to be sure that the motoring public understands that their participation in this survey is truly voluntary – particularly since uniformed police officers are frequently involved," he said. "Depending on what we learn, we may need to address this in the transportation reauthorization bill we will be moving later this year."

Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., a subcommittee member, said he'd like to consider "different methods we can use to best collect this lifesaving data, while also ensuring privacy rights are protected."

In the Senate, Pennsylvania Democrat Bob Casey said his constituents have "raised some legitimate concerns" about the government's tactics.

"It is imperative that we do what we can to ensure that our roads are safe from impaired drivers," Casey said. But "NHTSA needs to make sure that their efforts are in accordance with the law and that they take care to protect the rights of Pennsylvanians and drivers across the country while they do the important work of keeping our roads safe."

In Reading, Pa., motorist Ricardo Nieves has filed suit over the survey, saying his rights were violated when a Pacific Institute employee forced him into a parking lot, where he was questioned about his driving habits and asked to provide a saliva sample. He refused and drove away.

Nieves had asked a judge to issue a preliminary injunction against the city of Reading and the contractor. A hearing was scheduled for Friday, but attorneys on both sides asked the judge to cancel it after the Pacific Institute – survey work was scheduled to wrap up last month anyway – agreed it would not conduct any additional surveys in eastern Pennsylvania for the duration of the lawsuit.

Nieves is still seeking a permanent ban on the survey, as well as damages from the Dec. 13 stop itself. The Pacific Institute has asked a judge to throw out the lawsuit.