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Driver raises questions about checkpoint in Reading

By Catherine Hawley, Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 16 2013 04:34:22 PM CST
Updated On: Dec 16 2013 05:48:34 PM CST

Drivers in Reading say they were stopped at a strange checkpoint this weekend.

READING, Pa. -

Ricardo Nieves was headed to pick up his mother around 10:30 a.m. Friday when he said he saw two police cars near the Bingaman Street Bridge in southwest Reading.

"I noticed some flashing lights off to the side of the road," he shared.

Nieves told 69 News that cones were set up and someone dressed in plain clothes stepped out in front of his car. He was ushered into a parking lot off Laurel Street.

"Once I got into the driveway of the parking lot I noticed an orange construction sign. It said paid volunteer service," added Nieves.

Then someone approached his car.

"She wanted to ask me a couple questions about my driving behaviors and habits and also a mouth swab, and would pay me for this," Nieves described.

He said the woman explained he wasn't being pulled over and wasn't in trouble, but also never said who she was or why she was there. Nieves told us he felt trapped and intimidated by the whole set up.

"There's police lights. There's an orange cone. Someone's out with an orange flashing light standing in traffic directing you somewhere."

Nieves thought they flagged him down to get a DNA sample. It turns out the Reading man was just being requested to participate in the 2013 National Roadside Survey, a study done once a decade since the 1970s by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration. 

Every driver stopped was asked by federal contractors to give breath, saliva and blood samples in exchange for money. 

"They selected Berks County to be one of the sites and set up a survey," said Chief Bill Heim, Reading Police Dept.

Heim said city officers were providing site security. According to the NHTSA, the survey aims to calculate how many drivers get behind the wheel drunk or on any kind of drugs. 

Researchers are polling 60 sites across the nation, hoping to gather tests from 7,500 drivers. Reading was chosen to be a part of the study because of local crash statistics. 

"I think it's a valuable thing to get data so you can make conclusions and develop strategies to cut injuries and deaths nationwide," Heim said.

In the 2007 survey, researchers found 12.4 percent of drivers had alcohol in their systems, and about 16 percent had used marijuana, cocaine, over the counter or prescription drugs.

The NHTSA told us the survey does not collect DNA, that it is anonymous and 100 percent voluntary, but Nieves said he thinks it was an attack on his civil liberties.

"They called this voluntary," he lamented.  "Nothing about this was voluntary."

Nieves said he called the ACLU, and he planned to speak at Monday night's City Council meeting.