CARS WITH NO HUMANS. California took another step on October 11 toward permitting the testing of self-driving vehicles without a human driver, continuing a shift away from previous policies that companies criticized as being overly restrictive. The state’s Department of Motor Vehicles released revisions to rules proposed in March to allow such autonomous car testing on public roads, which could take effect by next June, California DMV Chief Counsel Brian Soublet said on a conference call with reporters. The proposed rules would also allow companies to introduce self-driving vehicles that can be used by the general public.
The development of autonomous vehicle technology and public policy in the U.S. has been concentrated in California. Much of the development work is concentrated in Silicon Valley, where companies such as Alphabet Inc. and Cruise Automation Inc. are now testing these vehicles on public roads. California has allowed self-driving car tests with a human driver ready to take control since September 2014. State regulators in California have now permitted 42 companies to test self-driving vehicles in the state, up from only 11 last June.
GAS TAX DECEPTION. On September 25, 2017, a superior court judge caught California officials cheating in an attempt to dissuade voters from blocking an increase in the statewide gasoline tax at the ballot box. Judge Timothy M. Frawley took the extreme step of re-writing the summary information for the ballot proposal after finding state Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s draft text was unfair to gas tax opponents like Assemblyman Travis Allen (R-Huntington Beach). “It’s outrageous that the attorney general intentionally tried to mislead California voters in an effort enforce Governor Jerry Brown’s massive $52 billion gas tax,” Allen said in a statement. “California voters will now see a new ballot title and statement that truly represents what this initiative will do – repeal Jerry Brown’s massively-unpopular gas tax.”
In April, the state legislature, controlled by a Democratic supermajority, enacted legislation raising the gas tax by 12 cents per gallon and boosting the annual vehicle registration fee of $53 to a maximum of $175 per year. Each tax will automatically rise according to the annual inflation rate, raising a total of $52 billion from motorists over the next decade. In May, Allen introduced a ballot initiative calling for a referendum on the tax hike. To get the initiative on the ballot, Allen needs to collect 365,880 signatures using state-approved ballot language.
Allen submitted language describing his measure as an effort that “repeals recent legislation that created a new gas tax, diesel tax, vehicle registration fee, and zero-emission vehicle fee.” Becerra rewrote that to read: “Eliminates recently enacted road repair and transportation funding by repealing revenues dedicated for those purposes.” The rewrite did not pass muster with the judge.
“The court agrees with petitioner that the attorney general’s title and summary is confusing, misleading, and likely to create prejudice against the proposed measure,” Judge Frawley concluded. “While the court is mindful of the deference afforded to the attorney general, it is clear to this court that the attorney general’s title and summary does not fairly and reasonably inform voters of the real purpose of the measure in clear and understandable language.” Ordinary voters, the court ruled, would not have a clear understanding of what the initiative did from Becerra’s choice of the phrase “repealing revenues,” which would cause voters to think the initiative’s sole purpose was to reduce spending on several transportation projects.
“The title appears to be written to focus attention on merely the elimination of funding and avoids mentioning taxes and fees directly,” Judge Frawley wrote. “This is misleading and is likely to create prejudice against the measure.” By contrast, the court found Allen’s ballot language was “clear” in its description of exactly what it would accomplish. The court did allow the attorney general some flexibility to describe aspects of reduced funding, as long as, on the whole, the wording was true and impartial.
DRUG TESTING ROADBLOCKS. Some local police agencies caused a stir three years ago by setting up roadblocks around the country designed to “voluntarily” swab motorists for drug use. The heavy-handed tactics used at these locations sparked a lawsuit and the ire of at least one U.S. senator, forcing the agencies to retreat, for a while. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) announced last week that it will be bringing back the controversial program. “This study will estimate the prevalence of drugs in drivers arrested for impaired driving,” NHTSA associate administrator Jeff Michael wrote. “The goal is to better understand the frequency of alcohol, prescription, over-the-counter and illicit drugs, in impaired driving arrests.”
Under the revised plan, one thousand motorists will again be asked to “voluntarily” consent to place a cotton swab in their mouth for five minutes so that it can be tested for the residue of fifty different drugs. The roadblocks will take place over six months at up to three sites around the country, and will be run by local police departments. Drivers being arrested for driving under the influence (DUI) will be “informed” of the opportunity to participate in the study. Researchers will also ask the motorists a series of questions about their drug use.
“The results of the drug test and questionnaire will not be provided to anyone outside of the research team (including the participant), and participation in the study will not be used to help or hurt the individual in any related legal proceedings,” Michael explained. In his 2013 lawsuit against the drug testing roadblocks, Ricardo Nieves complained that he was browbeaten by officers to take the test, which paid participants $10 for their time. Nieves settled the lawsuit after local officials and the survey company agreed to stop doing the testing.
The drug testing surveys conducted in 2007 and 2013 were funded both by NHTSA and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). In the 2013 test, NHTSA identified 211 motorists who drove with traces of over-the-counter medications in their bloodstream. Another 597 had detectable amounts of marijuana, though the agency concedes that the test is unable to identify whether the metabolites that were found reflected a reduced ability to drive. Stay tuned. Got questions? Call NTA at (800) 805-0040. Until next month, “Drive Safe – Drive Smart!”