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Greg Webb
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Federal Agency Withheld Data On The Risks Of Distracted Driving

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In 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed a long-term study that would determine the danger posed by cell phone use behind the wheel; they began the study after evidence showed multitasking was a serious and growing threat on the roadways. This study’s research and warnings regarding the use of phones were not released until recently, however, because the agency was scared the findings would anger Congress, thus jeopardizing billions of dollars in funding. The information was only released after two advocacy groups filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents.

The documents in question revealed that highway safety experts estimated that in 2002, cell phone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents. The researchers based the fatality and accident estimates on studies that quantified the risks of distracted driving and the assumption that at any given time, six percent of drivers were talking on the phone; the agency now estimates this number has risen to about twelve percent. Researchers also shelved a draft letter prepared for the Transportation Secretary. The letter was to be sent to states in an attempt to warn officials that hands-free laws were not enough to solve the problem because it’s the conversation itself that keeps drivers from paying full attention to the road, not just holding the cellphone itself. Due to their conclusions, the researchers asked that drivers not use wireless communication devices while driving unless it was an emergency. Because researchers did not want to anger the appropriations committee, however, this report was swept under the rug.

The former head of the agency claims he was asked not to make the research public to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who warned the agency to stick to its policy of gathering safety data and not lobbying states. Critics say this rationale has led to many unnecessary lives being lost and the innovation of a culture of behind-the-wheel multitasking. Many claim this problem is as bad as drunk driving and the government is attempting to cover it up. Supporters of the agency argue Congress had nothing to do with the decision to not publicize the information; they claim no public health agency would allow its research to be suppressed for political reasons. This research mirrors many that describe the dangers of multitasking while driving. Research shows, for example, that drivers talking on the phone are four times as likely to get in an accident as those who are not, and are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol level.

Not all of the research went unpublished. The safety agency did put over 150 scientific articles on its website describing how talking on the cell phone while driving impairs the brain’s reaction time; these articles, however, did not contain the summaries written by researchers. This, one researcher claims, took the teeth out of the findings.

To view the documents that were released, please click here: documents.nytimes.com/documents-from-the-u-s-department-of-transportation-s-national-highway-traffic-safety-administration