Back in 2003, researchers from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) performed a study and estimated that cell phone use by drivers caused approximately 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002. This is a staggering and unprecedented number, and interestingly enough, more than double the Department of Transportation’s current estimation of the number of auto accidents involving cell phones.
“We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up,” Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, told the New York Times.
The problem is, these findings were never published in a report or released to the public until two consumer advocacy groups petitioned to view them through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
Yesterday’s New York Times revealed that while the NHTSA had commissioned an in-depth study into the ways cell phone usage by drivers impacts wrecks and fatalities, no findings were ever published. Why? In part, reveals the Times, due to a mandate by the U.S. Congress.
According to the Times, then Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta had been poised to send a letter to states warning them of the danger posed by cell phones. Research also showed that, because the conversation and not the phone caused the distraction, hands-free cell phones did not lessen the risk. But the letter was never sent because Congress had handed down a mandate telling the agency to refrain from lobbying states on transportation issues. Dr. Jeffrey Runge, who was head of the highway safety agency at the time, was told that the agency could lose billions in funding if they angered Congress by pursuing the letter to individual states.
The Times piece reported that the unpublished research conformed to the findings of other studies that “motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.”
For everyday drivers like you and me, one of the most important aspects of this story is how it reveals that a federal agency decided, perhaps due to pressure from Congress, not to step in at a crucial juncture in the history of cars and cell phones. At the time, many states were considering, and some even passed, laws banning drivers from using cell phone handsets. But no state, perhaps partly due to incomplete research, has passed an outright cell phone ban for drivers. Perhaps if this information had been disseminated to the individual states, a stronger case could have been made for banning wireless communication devices while driving. Who know how many lives could have been saved?
If you are interested in learning more about this story, and if you or a love one drive on the roads, you should be, visit the New York Times website for some more fascinating information. This link will take you to the actual suppressed documents from the NHTSA study, and you can read the entire New York Times story here.
Please leave your opinions on this very serious issue in the comments. What do you think of drivers using cell phones? Did this story change your opinion?