US Agency Blocked Cellular Distracted Driver Research

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We now know that any cellular use while driving is dangerous, but we could have known years sooner if the U.S. Department of Transportation hadn't shelved research findings for fear of angering Congress.

This is another case in which the government did research and then squelched the findings because it didn't like the result, or more specifically its political implications.

The New York Times broke the story today.

The reason for this silencing of science? Some members of Congress didn't want the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration to be seen as "lobbying" states to pass specific legislation. Apparently, even when thousands of deaths and millions of vehicle accidents are involved.

"The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002," the Times reported.

Also squelched was a letter to governors warning that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. Why? The study found that a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers’ focus off the road, studies showed.

According to the Times, "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."

If the research had been released, and if Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta had actually sent the 2003 letter, critics say lives could have been saved and injuries prevented. Further, instead of passing hands-free laws, states might have totally banned the use of cellular devices in moving vehicles.

"We therefore recommend that the drivers not use wireless communication devices, including text messaging systems, when driving, except in an emergency," the Times reported, quoted a "talking points" document prepared by the researchers but never released.

Earlier this year, the National Safety Council called for just such a ban.

California State Senator Joe Simitian told the newspaper that he worked beginning in 2001 to get a cellular ban passed in his state. He finally succeeded with a hands-free law in 2006, but was also immediately criticized for not banning cellular use entirely in moving vehicles.

"Years went by when lives could have been saved,” Simitian told the Times.

This is clearly a case of politics entering science to the detriment of us all. It is shameful, potentially fatal in this case, and needs to stop.

Meanwhile, even though I am a hands-free user myself and don’t feel particularly dangerous while doing so, I believe we need to take a serious look at whether all cellular use in moving vehicles should be prohibited.

After reading this report and reconsidering the issue--I'd already read a AAA study that draws the same conclusion--I am now much more likely to pull over when the phone rings or I need to make a call while mobile. If Techinciter readers will join me by doing the same, lives will be saved. Maybe even ours.

Industry veteran David Coursey tweets as @techinciter and can be contacted via his Web site.

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