Evidence continues to accumulate that talking on the phone while driving – even with a hands-free device – increases the risk of car crashes. We learned earlier this week that officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have been concerned about this problem for years, but declined to go public with research that would have demonstrated the need for legislative action or send a letter to the Transportation Secretary warning that state hands-free laws wouldn’t solve the problem.

NHTSA materials related to cellphones and driving came to light thanks to the nonprofit groups Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, which obtained the documents under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit and passed them along to the New York Times. Reporter Matt Richtel explains what was in the documents and why the agency decided not to release them:

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. …

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.

The three-person research team based the fatality and accident estimates on studies that quantified the risks of distracted driving, and an assumption that 6 percent of drivers were talking on the phone at a given time. That figure is roughly half what the Transportation Department assumes to be the case now.

More precise data does not exist because most police forces have not collected long-term data connecting cellphones to accidents. That is why the researchers called for the broader study with 10,000 or more drivers.

According to the Times, Dr. Jeffrety Runge, who headed NHTSA at the time, heard from transit officials that “he could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing if Congress perceived the agency had crossed the line into lobbying.” Runge also told the Times that he wanted to educate people about what he considered to be a serious problem, but “my advisers upstairs said we should not poke a finer in the eye of the appropriations committee.” The meeting that decided the fate of the research included several NHTSA staff members, Runge, and John Flaherty, who was chief of staff to Transportation Secretary Mineta; Flaherty claims that the decision not to publish the research was because the data was too inconclusive.

I don’t know how likely Congress would have been to view NHTSA’s activities – research, a letter to Secretary Mineta, and call for a larger study – as as lobbying. It certainly doesn’t sound like lobbying to me, but I guess “lobbying activities” could have been code for “anything that makes us unhappy.” If members of the Appropriations Committee intended to discourage NHTSA from communicating well-researched scientific information about an important public health risk, then those members are not people who should be serving in Congress.

Another disturbing possibility is that the people who were making the decision about releasing NHTSA’s research had internalized anti-regulatory sentiment from above and begun to censor themselves based on the expected reaction to their work. Maybe no member of Congress was trying to discourage them from releasing research on the risks of using cell phones while driving, but the decisionmakers had gotten so accustomed to backlash against anything suggesting that a popular or lucrative activity might be harmful that they decided they didn’t want to face the same experience again.

In a companion article, Richtel makes it clear that Congress isn’t so concerned about hearing complaints from the wireless industry, but from the millions of voters who are accustomed to talking on the phone while driving and won’t want to give it up.* Members of Congress could face lots of flak from constituents if Congress plays any role in banning phoning while driving, although those of us who’ve been nearly run down by distracted drivers will be grateful. 

We ought to be able to rely on the agencies charged with protecting us to tell us when research shows that a common activity threatens public health. Several decades ago, smokers and tobacco-state legislators were unhappy to learn cigarettes were bad for their health and the health of those around them – but the resulting changes in legislation and individual smoking habits have saved millions of lives. Legislators shouldn’t be able to use financial threats to suppress public health research or science-based advice, but since they probably do, agency officials should be prepared to stand up to those threats when public safety is at stake.

 
* Oklahoma state legislator Tad Jones told Richtel, “I’m on the phone from when I leave the Capitol to when I get home, and that’s a two-hour drive,” and I’m sure many drivers share his view of commuting time as a time to catch up on phone calls. Maybe if people didn’t consider driving time to be productive time, they’d rethink their choices about where they live and how they commute, and would push for denser development near job sites and better public transportation.

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