Government-hired survey teams will soon ask hundreds of Washington state motorists to answer questions and provide samples of breath, saliva and blood — all to give safety and police agencies a clearer sense of how many people drive impaired.
The roadside surveys are voluntary, and participants will be paid up to $60, under the federally funded project this summer.
National officials are collaborating with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, which is hurrying to gather data before retail marijuana gains a foothold. That way, officials have a baseline from which to measure any safety effects of legalization, said commission spokeswoman Jonna VanDyk.
The roadside surveys began Friday and will continue over the weekend in Spokane and Yakima counties, followed by Kitsap and Whatcom counties later this month, and probably King and Snohomish counties, she said.
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The study contractors plan to survey 150 drivers in each of six counties, for a total 900 participants.
Crews will not block or slow traffic, officials say. Drivers at a stoplight would encounter civilians wearing orange vests, with signs saying “Paid Voluntary Survey,” then be asked if they wish to participate.
Other National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) studies have caused controversy elsewhere — including a lawsuit in Pennsylvania — where drivers said they felt compelled by police to stop and participate. The NHTSA program in Washington state will be run by the same contractors, Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, but has been designed with extra safeguards, such as keeping police off the front line.
Any biological samples will be destroyed when the findings are published, the state says. Names and license numbers won’t be recorded, and therefore the samples won’t be archived or cross-checked by government agencies, VanDyk said.
The state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union was consulted and says the program respects Washington state’s constitution and culture.
“In other parts of the country, they used law-enforcement officers either as an actual roadblock, or waving people over, which would have raised our hackles,” said Doug Klunder, privacy counsel for the ACLU in Seattle.
State officials have likened the scene to a carwash where fundraisers beckon people to pull over, Klunder said.
Last fall, police in Fort Worth, Texas apologized and removed themselves from a NHTSA roadside study after people said a police presence made them feel compelled to participate, a news report there said.
General traffic roadblocks were found unconstitutional in Washington state in a 1986 Supreme Court case, City of Seattle v. Mesiani, on grounds they violate Article I, Section 7, which says: “No person shall be disturbed in his private affairs, or his home invaded, without authority of law.”
NHTSA conducted roadside surveys in various states in 1973, 1986, 1996 and 2007, and is covering the cost for this month’s Washington study.
It will be conducted by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, which VanDyk said has done 30 studies in other states.
Preliminary findings are expected this fall, with a follow-up survey in early 2015 to gauge the impact of marijuana sales, said program manager Shelly Baldwin.
“It’s really hard to predict how this data will be used downstream,” VanDyk said. The findings might help local police decide how much time to spend on DUI patrol, for instance, she said.
“As a state, we’ve committed ourselves to reducing fatal collisions,” she said.
Given experience in California, she’s confident the surveys will include an accurate cross-section of drivers, even people who’ve been drinking, because they are enticed by the $60 stipend for the 20-minute survey. She said a survey there found 1 percent of drivers who participated were legally drunk, and 14 percent had some drug in their system, most commonly marijuana.
Questioners will carry detectors that pick up alcohol in the air and will alert the team if someone has roughly 0.05% blood alcohol content. Those would activate even before somebody blows into a breath-testing device, has their mouth swabbed or gives a blood sample. Klunder said the detectors that sense alcohol in the air cause some concern, but one could argue that merely agreeing to take the survey is a form of consent.
“That is probably the most coming-to-the-edge part of that, in my mind,” Klunder said. “But still it’s limited, and how they use it is limited.”
The state threshold for driving under the influence is 0.08%, but research has found that reaction times decline before that level. If somebody blows between 0.05 and 0.08, the team would urge the driver to give the keys to a sober person, or accept a cab or motel room. Failing that, a police officer would explain the same options, said VanDyk. The police officer serves a second role, to protect the survey teams, which will sometimes work at night or in tough neighborhoods, she said.
The survey is meant to check for some 75 substances, including prescription and over-the-counter drugs.
Marijuana’s effects on driving are considered more difficult to predict than alcohol. “Traces of marijuana can be detected in blood samples several weeks after chronic users stop ingestion,” an NHTSA report acknowledges.
Alison Holcomb, author of Washington’s legal pot law and an ACLU lawyer, said collision studies are needed, and not just roadside surveys, to get a clear picture of how recreational marijuana affects or doesn’t affect traffic safety. Generally speaking, alcohol can lead to more aggression, while marijuana impairment leads to slower speeds and reactions, she said.
Surveys in other states have found good news — the proportion of drivers over 0.08 has gradually dropped from 7.5 percent in 1973 to 2.2 percent in 2007, NHTSA reported.
Washington state has been striving to reduce road deaths through its “Target Zero” program, and is making steady progress. Traffic fatalities here have declined from 825 in 1990 to 444 in 2012, according to federal tables.
Still, an average 232 people a year die in the state because of impaired driving.
Mike Lindblom: 206-515-5631 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @mikelindblom