NMA E-Newsletter #258: Just Say NO for the Holidays

Nothing says Happy Holidays like getting caught up in a roadblock followed by one of NHTSA’s elves asking you for a “voluntary” blood sample. We originally told you about this ongoing roadside “research project” a few weeks back (NMA E-Newsletter #255: Dangerous Business).

Since then, it seems that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and its contractor Pacific Institute for Research Evaluation (PIRE) have picked up the pace, perhaps trying to wrap up their work by the end of the year. Over the last couple of weeks, additional news reports have surfaced of “stop and stick” roadblocks in St. Charles County, Missouri, and Reading, Pennsylvania.

These recent operations follow the template we described previously. Random motorists are diverted into a holding area manned by police and PIRE representatives who ask motorists to submit to “voluntary” breath tests and to provide cheek swabs and blood samples. Drivers are offered $10 for a cheek swab and $50 for a blood sample. Drivers who refuse initially are offered up to $100 to participate.

Motorists are also subjected to passive alcohol monitoring without their knowledge or consent. This aspect of the stop is listed on the consent form presented to participants, but by the time the motorist sees the form, the testing is done.

The stated purpose of all of this drama is to gauge the extent of drugged driving along with levels of impairment produced. The lead researcher from PIRE, John Lacey, has stated that no DNA samples are collected, that all samples are destroyed and that participants remain anonymous.  Oh, and that everything is voluntary.

But that’s not how drivers see it. With uniformed police diverting traffic, and squad cars lit up like Christmas trees, many drivers report feeling coerced to comply. One St. Charles County Sheriff’s Department official even stated: “It doesn’t give the public the impression that it’s voluntary if there’s a uniformed officer out there…” And last month, the Fort Worth police chief apologized for his officers’ participation in the survey after complaints from motorists who said they felt compelled to participate in the tests. Too little too late.

The enforcement environment created during the stops is carefully orchestrated to maximize compliance. The PIRE’s Lacey also led a similar nationwide study in 2007. The methodology he created for that program led to 90 percent of the 11,000 drivers stopped on weekend nights giving a breath sample, more than 70 percent providing a saliva sample and 40 percent consenting to a blood sample. Thanks in part to these results, Lacey was awarded the 2012 James J. Howard Highway Safety Trailblazer Award by the Governors Highway Safety Association.

Gathering legitimate, useful safety data is one thing, but we get the impression the emphasis of these roadside surveys is really on gauging public tolerance. Tolerance for increasingly intrusive and constitutionally questionable assaults on our privacy and our right to travel freely.

So, what do you do if you’re confronted with one of these roadside rousts over the upcoming holidays? First, channel your inner Scrooge and call what it is—a humbug. And second, channel your inner Nancy Reagan and politely just say NO!

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