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Status Report, Vol. 49, No. 2 | March 13, 2014 Subscribe

Don't confuse essential public health research with government spying

An effort to collect information about impaired driving through a voluntary survey has led to a backlash amid concerns about privacy. Researchers conducting the National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving work with local police to safely stop drivers, who are then asked to participate. Survey workers collect breath, saliva and blood samples, but no names are taken. Those who agree to provide saliva or blood are paid a small amount. Alternate transportation is provided for any drivers found to be impaired, but no charges are brought. Nevertheless, the participation of police has raised concerns in the wake of revelations about federal surveillance programs, and some police departments say they will no longer assist with the survey.

IIHS President Adrian Lund responds to the controversy:

Collecting anonymous data about a serious public health threat is a far cry from government spying. The National Roadside Survey of Alcohol and Drugged Driving helps highway safety researchers evaluate how well we as a nation are dealing with the known scourge of alcohol-impaired driving and the potential problem of impairment by other drugs. In order to reduce the toll from impaired driving, we need to know how prevalent these substances are among drivers.

Great strides were made in the 1980s and early 1990s to reduce the contribution of alcohol to motor vehicle crashes. Thanks to the activities of organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving and the enactment of laws making punishment for driving under the influence more certain and banning the sale of alcohol to those younger than 21, the proportion of fatally injured drivers with blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of 0.08 percent or higher fell from nearly half in 1982 to about a third in 1994. The policies worked.

Since the mid-90s, however, that proportion hasn't budged. Does that mean our policies have stopped working? Do we need to change them? Should we double-down on some of them, for example, by lowering the legal BAC limit from 0.08 percent to 0.05 percent? The national roadside survey — anonymous, voluntary and conducted four times previously without ill effects to participants — can help answer those questions.

Previous roadside surveys, conducted in 1973, 1986, 1996 and 2007, show a steady decline in drinking drivers on the road. Our alcohol policies still seem to be working to get impaired drivers off the roads. But we need a better understanding of why alcohol continues to be involved in fatal crashes at such a high rate.

Only by gathering more data can we hope to solve this puzzle so that we can continue our progress in reducing the impaired-driving toll. From a public health perspective, it would be irresponsible not to do so.

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