Problems with NHTSA Roadside Survey

British politician Benjamin Disraeli said, “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Much of our national policy and regulation is based on statistics. The intention in the gathering and analysis of the statistics is often to determine how best to protect us from ourselves, but sometimes the gathering process is intrusive and offends our right to liberty and privacy.

A February 20 news report out of Reading, Pennsylvania, highlights some of the issues that have arisen lately with the $8 million 2013 National Roadside Survey being conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to provide information about the incidence of drunk and drugged driving.

Ricardo Nieves, a veteran, chaplain for an American Legion post, and candidate for the Reading City Council, was stopped on December 13, 2013, by a government contractor gathering data for the NHTSA survey. The man stepped in front of Nieves’ car and directed him to turn into a parking lot, where he was questioned about his driving habits and asked for a mouth swab that would detect the presence of illegal or prescription drugs in his system. Nieves refused. He has since filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Reading, its mayor and police chief, and the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation, the organization hired by NHTSA, for being forced to stop without probable cause, which is unconstitutional.

Nieves is not alone in his ire over the way the roadside survey is being conducted. While federal officials contend that participation in the survey is voluntary, Nieves and others, like Kim Cope of Fort Worth, Texas, say that when a uniformed police officer directs you to pull over or into a funneled lane, you’re not likely to refuse to comply.

On December 18, 2013, Dan Coats, U.S. Senator from Indiana, sent a letter to NHTSA calling for an immediate halt to the program while Congress reviews the way the survey is being conducted. Earlier this month a bill introduced in the Tennessee legislature passed the Senate unanimously and went to the House Criminal Justice Committee. That bill would forbid Tennessee law enforcement officers from taking part in the national highway safety survey.

This is certainly not the first national roadside survey to collect data related to driving habits – in fact, it’s the fifth one conducted by NHTSA and/or the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the most recent prior one taking place in 2007. The methodology involves reviewing the estimated 6 million police-reported crashes which occur annually to identify appropriate survey sites, based on factors such as population density and regional location. For the 2007 survey, Lake County, Indiana, was a targeted area. Nationally, 11,000 people were stopped; data collection involved questioning as well as breath, saliva and blood testing.

Over the past year, six teams of 10 people have traveled to 60 sites throughout the country to work with local law enforcement and collect information from randomly selected drivers during the day and night. We anticipate that the furor over the data collection process will gather steam as more and more drivers, and legislators, speak out against what Senator Coats referred to as an “apparent overreach of power by the Federal government.”

While we wouldn’t join those who opine that the end always justifies the means, we would simply point to some statistics supporting NHTSA’s research into drunk and drugged driving:

  • Every day in the U.S., 28 people die as a result of drunk driving crashes.
  • Almost every 90 seconds, a person is injured in a drunk driving crash.
  • Drunk driving costs the United States $132 billion a year.
  • Drugs other than alcohol (e.g., marijuana and cocaine) are involved in about 18% of motor vehicle driver deaths.
  • Among motorcyclists killed in fatal crashes in 2010, 28% had BACs of 0.08% or greater.
  • Sobriety checkpoints consistently reduce alcohol-related crashes, typically by 9%.

These aren’t lies, or damned lies . . . they’re just statistics. Don’t be among them.

At McNeely Stephenson, we have been successfully litigating personal injury cases since 1981. If you or your loved one has been the victim of a drunk or drugged driver, call Mike Stephenson, Indianapolis vehicle accident lawyer. He can be reached at 1-317-825-5200 or through our online form.