In 2003, the National Transportation and Highway Safety Administration documented how using a cell phone while driving increased traffic accidents and deaths behind the wheel.
But the federal agency withheld that information from the public.
In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel.
They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.
But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.
On Tuesday, the full body of research is being made public for the first time by two consumer advocacy groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents. The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen provided a copy to The New York Times, which is publishing the documents on its Web site.
In interviews, the officials who withheld the research offered their fullest explanation to date.
The former head of the highway safety agency said he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states.
Critics say that rationale and the failure of the Transportation Department, which oversees the highway agency, to more vigorously pursue distracted driving has cost lives and allowed to blossom a culture of behind-the-wheel multitasking.
“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.
The group petitioned for the information after The Los Angeles Times wrote about the research last year. Mother Jones later published additional details.
The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002.
The researchers also shelved a draft letter they had prepared for Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to send, warning states that hands-free laws might not solve the problem.
That letter said that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason: a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers’ focus off the road, studies showed.
The research mirrors other studies about the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel. Research shows 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.
It doesn’t take a government report to convince most of us that idiots who use a cell phone while driving are dangers on the road. Most of us have been forced to slam on our brakes or take evasive action because someone talking on a cell phone pulled out in front of traffic without looking or crossed the center line.
People who use cell phones while driving are a danger not only to themselves but also to everyone else on the road. Virginia this year outlawed texting on a cell phone while driving but the legislation lacks balls because it is a "secondary offense" which means the officer must pull the offender over for another "primary" offense. Teenagers cannot use cell phones while driving but you see adults with the damn things stuck to their ear on the road every day.
Cell phone use on the road while driving should be banned outright. It should be a primary offense with a high fine on first offense and loss of license on a second conviction.