Feds withheld data on risks of using a cellphone behind the wheel

A 2007 survey by Nationwide Mutual Insurance depicted the dangers of texting while driving. On Tuesday, unreleased research by The National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration, surfaced on the perils of using a cellphone while driving.

Even more evidence that driving while using a cellphone could be a serious safety hazard came to the forefront Tuesday.

Since 2003, the federal National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration (NHTSA) has withheld publishing studies and research depicting the risks of drivers using cellphones behind the wheel. On Tuesday, those reports were made public for the first time by two consumer advocacy groups, The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, who obtained the unreleased documents after filing a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit in 2008. The New York Times has published these documents online.

The papers, which were concealed from the public, detail numerous studies conducted by the highway safety agency to determine the risks of using a cellphone while driving. The papers also include draft cellphone policy proposals.

One of the documents, a draft cellphone policy by the NHTSA recommends that drivers "do not use these devices [cellphones] when driving, except in an emergency. Moreover, we are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of hand-held cellphones while driving may not be effective in improving highway safety since it will not address the problem. In fact, such legislation may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving."

The New York Times reports that the agency did publish some of the findings in a bibliography on its website, though one of the bibliography's researchers, Chris Monk, says the research, which he called "a stripped-out summary," was "almost laughable."

However, the majority of these documents were never made public by administrators, such as the former head of the traffic safety agency, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, who feared public officials, and members of Congress, would consider such research as lobbying efforts, according to The New York Times. The research ultimately was shelved because the agency found it was "too inconclusive," John Flaherty, former chief of staff for former NHSTA secretary Norman Y. Mineta, told the New York Times.

While hands-free devices were considered safer alternatives, and laws were passed to require the use of hands-free devices in certain states, the New York Times reports that unpublished NHTSA research "shows that drivers using a cellphone are four-times more likely to crash as other drivers, and as likely to cause an accident at someone with a .08 blood alcohol content."

A draft letter addressed to state governors, and written by Mr. Mineta also explains "that both hand-held and hands-free cellphones increase the risk of a crash.  Indeed, research has demonstrated that 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 driver's performance."


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