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National DWI/DUI roadside survey spooking Americans nationally

The uniformed cop standing on the pavement in front of you waves you off the road and into a parking lot, for no apparent reason. Then, without your consent, a so-called “passive alcohol sensor” is placed in front of your face, measuring blood-alcohol content. You are then asked about your drinking and driving habits, requested to take a breathalyzer test and additionally informed that you can make some money by providing blood and saliva samples and responding to written questions.

Might you be just a bit confused by that interaction?

More importantly, might you harbor reasonable doubts as to whether such a stop is even legal or whether adverse consequences would attach if you refused to stop, submit to any testing or flatly refuse to answer any questions?

If you’re emphatically nodding your head to indicate a “yes” answer to that question, you’re far from alone. The formally entitled National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving, currently being conducted in scores of cities across the country, is having a similar effect on many citizens and motorists nationally. Pointed questions have emerged regarding its legality and the process by which it is being administered.

The aim of the initiative is clear enough: to gather information on the prevalence of drunk driving and to get inebriated drivers off the road. Notably absent from the program, though, is probable cause or any reasonable suspicion harbored by a police officer -- or, in some instances, a contract worker employed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration -- that would justify a motorist being pulled over.

The NHTSA responds that motorists needn’t have concerns, given that their participation is entirely voluntary and that no criminal liability would attach in any case.

Although those words seek to calm, widespread concern remains, with many motorists pulled over stating that the voluntary nature of their participation was manifestly unclear.

National lawmakers questioned David Friedman, the Acting Administrator of the NHTSA, about the program earlier this week. Friedman told legislators that his agency takes motorists’ concerns “very seriously” and will stop taking breath samples absent explicit consent to do so.

Source: The Mercury News, "Federal roadside survey to get public's consent for breath samples," Michael Rubinkam (Associated Press), March12, 2014

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