Research on Drivers' Phone Use Withheld

Written by Andrew Traub

July 27, 2009

While it is well known that driving while using cell phones can be dangerous, researchers at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration wanted to conduct a study in 2003 to assess the risk.

However, the agency did not approve of the study because they feared it would anger the Congress.  Not only that, but senior government officials chose not to make research that recommended that cell phones not be used while driving public, until today.

Two consumer advocacy groups filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents and The New York Times published the documents on their website.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, the former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said the Congress was telling his agency to not lobby states and to only gather safety information.  Runge decided not to publish the research in order to avoid angering the Congress.  Many don’t agree with Runge’s logic because no matter who it upsets, the information could save lives.

Clarence Ditlow, the director of the Center for Auto Safety, believes that it could be as dangerous as drunk driving.  Other information that has been withheld includes a draft letter speaking about how hands-free laws may not make calling and driving any safer because the actual conversation is what distracts drivers, not holding the phone.  This information was petitioned for as well and the Los Angeles Times published it last year.

In 2002, the highway safety researchers estimated that 955 deaths and 240,000 accidents were caused by cell phone use in vehicles.  Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez wants texting and driving to be illegal and for hands-free devices to be required if drivers are using their cell phone.

Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers  and are as likely to cause as accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.  The research concluded that the use of cell phones has contributed to a large amount of accidents and fatalities and therefore they recommend that drivers avoid using their phones in anyway unless it is an emergency.

Runge explains that he didn’t publish any of this because Congress had told him not to use its research to lobby states and he could lose the agency their financing.  Others said they didn’t publish the data because it was inconclusive and incomplete.  Runge further defends his decision saying that he feels that the issue is of the utmost importance and needs public attention.  He also says that he wanted to send the research to governors to sway them to pass hands-free laws.  However, Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta says he was unaware of anything of the sort going on and that the research never reached his desk.

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