DOT Covered Up Research on Cell Phone Use While Driving

I see them every morning on the way to work: “multi-tasking drivers” - drivers who are talking on their cell phone, watching their GPS system, and eating breakfast all at the same time. It’s scary. And it’s disappointing to learn that government officials covered up research about the risks of cell phone use while driving.


Last week The New York Times reported that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) withheld hundreds of pages of research about the dangers of cell phone use while driving. According Matt Richtel, former head of the NHTSA, officials at the Department of Transportation (DOT) urged the agency to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing the Congressional appropriators who controlled the highway budget. These appropriators had made it clear that they wanted the NHTSA to gather safety data but not to “lobby” the states. As a result of the DOT’s urging, the research was never released, and plans for a large-scale study were never presented.

The 2003 research was finally released last week through the Freedom of Information Act. The following comes from a 2003 draft letter that was never sent:

As you know, the wireless communications industry has grown at an extraordinary rate. Today there are more than 147 million cell phone subscribers - more than half of the U.S. population. According to a survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 6% of daylight driving time - up from 4% in 2000 - involves talking on the phone. That translates into more than 200 million in-car calls per day. However, the primary responsibility of the driver has always been to operate a motor vehicle safely. It is a task that requires full attention and focus. Statistics show that all distractions, whether associated with the use of technology or not, can increase the risk of a crash.

NHTSA estimates that driver distraction contributes to about 25 percent of all traffic crashes. Though all distractions are a concern, we have seen the growth of a particular distraction, namely cell phone use while driving. While the precise impact cannot be quantified, we nevertheless have concluded that the use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities. A significant body of research worldwide indicates that both hand-held and hands-free cell phones increase the risk of a crash. Indeed, research has demonstrated that there is little, if any, difference between the use of hand-held and hands-free phones in contributing to the risk of driving while distracted. In either operational mode, we have found that the cognitive distraction is significant enough to degrade a drivers’ performance.

We recommend that drivers not use these devices when driving, except in an emergency. Moreover, we are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of handheld cell phones while driving will not be effective since it will not address the problem. In fact, such legislation may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving.

Why did it take six years for government officials to release this information? As The New York Times puts it, Since when did trying to save lives constitute lobbying?

“We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up,” said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.

Studies in recent years have shown that a driver talking on a cell phone is four times more likely to crash; furthermore, a driver who’s talking on a cell phone is comparable to a drunk driver with a 0.08 blood alcohol content.

Texting and talking while driving is standard behavior. Today, in 2009, the DOT estimates that roughly 12 percent of drivers are on the phone at any given time. That number has doubled since 2003. Perhaps, if the 2003 research was not withheld, a few more lives could have been saved.

Have you been injured in a car wreck because of a distracted driver? If so, call MLN Law at 404-531-9700 to schedule your free consultation.