Earlier this month, President Barack Obama nominated Mothers Against Drunk Driving CEO Chuck Hurley to head up the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Hurley's pending appointment is bad news for social drinkers, motorists, and anyone interested in freedom of movement and less hassle on the roadways. Hurley is an anti-alcohol zealot, and a longtime proponent of just about any highway regulation that's sold under the guise of public safety. He's a supporter of primary seat belt laws, which allow police to pull motorists over solely for seat belt infractions. In addition to being a questionable use of law enforcement resources (people who don’t wear seat belts aren’t a threat to anyone other than themselves), primary seat belt laws have been criticized for giving police officers the pretext to engage in racial profiling, or to commit asset forfeiture abuse. Hurley has also supported the proliferation of red light cameras, despite studies showing that they're little more than revenue generators for local government, and may actually cause more accidents than they prevent.
Longtime automotive writer Eric Peters wrote recently in the Detroit Free Press that motorists have much to fear from a Hurley-led NHTSA, including a possible return to federally-mandated speed limits, a national blood alcohol count as low as .04, federally-mandated speed and red light cameras, and even the installation of GPS responders on vehicles for the possible implementation of future "pay as you go" driving taxes (Britain already keeps tabs on the whereabouts of every driver in the country).
But Hurley's record is most troubling when it comes to overly aggressive measures allegedly aimed at preventing drunken driving. MADD's top priority during Hurley's stint as CEO was to get state legislatures to pass laws mandating ignition interlock devices in the cars of all first-time DWI offenders. The device requires you to blow into a tube before starting your car, then blow again at set intervals as you’re driving (which, come to think of it, doesn't really seem all that safe). Under Hurley’s watch, MADD gave a “qualified endorsement” for bills in the New York and New Mexico legislatures that would have required the devices in all cars sold in those states. Fortunately, neither bill became law.
Hurley and MADD were also at the heart of the effort to force the states to adopt the .08 minimum blood alcohol standard back in the late 1990s, under penalty of losing federal highway funds for noncompliance. Studies show that both significant impairment and most DWI fatalities occur at much higher blood-alcohol concentrations.
Hurley has also aggressively pushed for the use of constitutionally-dubious roadblock sobriety checkpoints to enforce the new standard, even though there's convincing evidence these invasive tactics have actually made the roads more dangerous. DWI deaths began inching upward again as the roadblocks were implemented in the early 2000s. It isn't difficult to see why. Roadblocks are designed to catch motorists who aren't driving erratically enough to be caught with conventional law enforcement methods. The officers who staff them would otherwise be out on the streets, looking for actual drunks who pose an actual threat to highway safety.
With Hurley in charge, MADD’s goals will become NHTSA’s goals. That's troubling because at heart, MADD is an activist organization. The groups once-admirable goal of raising public awareness about drunk driving has over the last several years morphed into a zealous, evangelical teetotaling campaign. When a coalition of college presidents recently asked for nothing more than a new debate over the federal drinking age last year, for example, MADD called on parents to boycott the presidents' schools. MADD has supported prison sentences for parents who allow alcohol consumption at chaperoned parties for underage teens, and fought efforts to allow underage veterans to have a beer on base after returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Even MADD's founder, Candace Lightner, has renounced the group, calling them "neo-prohibitionists."
MADD is no longer merely a group of concerned mothers raising awareness. They've become very powerful, pushing for laws based on questionable data and that involve real trade-offs between safety, privacy, and individual freedom. That's what makes the organization's close relationship with the government so troubling. Hurley isn't the first MADD exec to make the jump to NHTSA—or the other way around. MADD regularly receives funding from the federal government. Members of MADD have even been known to help man and run sobriety checkpoints. MADD also runs many of the mandatory classes DWI convicts are forced to attend (and pay for).
Hurley would take NHTSA in a much more activist direction. States could expect to see more federal mandates about how they manage their roads, and motorists could expect expensive new mandatory safety add-ons to new vehicles; more reasons for to get pulled over; and lots more red light and speed cameras. NHTSA needs a director who will balance safety with freedom, who will look at data dispassionately, and who will consider unintended consequences before ushering in sweeping new policies.
Chuck Hurley isn't that person.
Radley Balko is a senior editor at Reason magazine.