NY Times: NHTSA Suppressed Cellphone Distraction Research

July 21, 2009

You've likely purchased some sort of hands-free device, like a Bluetooth headset, over the past several years—if you don't already have one built into your late-model car.

Now that you don't have to press buttons, flip a phone, or deal with a keyboard, no worries, right? Sadly, no; the evidence continues to build up against calling and driving in any form. And a story published yesterday in the New York Times suggests that some information from U.S. researchers was intentionally withheld by the feds.

Six years ago, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) "covered up hundreds of pages of research and warnings" about distraction due to cellphone use while driving because, according to the New York Times, "because of concerns about angering Congress."

That NHTSA might have put politics before safety is one of several points in the first-rate story, by Matt Richtel, which brings a comprehensive internal NHTSA report into light. The federal report included new data—from a long-term study of 10,000 drivers—and findings that might have allowed some states to pass restrictions on cellphone use while driving years earlier, possibly averting thousands of deaths and hundreds of thousands of accidents.

The researchers then came to the conclusion that other researchers wouldn't arrive to, convincingly, until several years later: that it's the conversation, not the action of holding the phone that causes the more significant distraction.

In the suppressed report, researchers estimated that cell-phone-related distraction had caused 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002 alone. In a letter to then Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta—another item that was withheld and never sent—the researchers warned that hands-free laws might not be enough.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge, who was then NHTSA's head decided not to publish the information or the policy recommendation at that time due to "larger political considerations," reported the Times, because the data was judged incomplete and Congress had warned the agency against using its research to lobby states.

At the time, the data was also suppressed because of the potential risk of angering voters who talked while driving, and the cellphone industry.

Through a freedom of information request, the New York Times has obtained the document, via the Center for Automotive Safety and Public Citizen, and has made it available with its story. The document is well organized, like a preliminary paper, and includes the following General Conclusion:

"The experimental data indicated that, with the exception of the consequences of manipulating a wireless communications device, there are negligible differences in safety relevant behavior and performance between using hand-held and hands-free communications devices while driving from the standpoint of cognitive distraction. Specifically, the experimental data reveal observable degradations in driver behavior and performance and changes in risk-taking and decision-making behaviors when using both hand-held and hands-free mobiles [sp] phones, and the nature of those degradations and changes are symptomatic of potential safety-related problems."

The lengthy but very accessible internal report that follows combines a slideshow-type summary of existing research along with the 2002 conservative risk-level crash estimates and proposed policy. For anyone concerned about the issue for themselves or a loved one, it's definitely worth the time to page through—and its provokes some thought about how differently we would have addressed the issue by now in state legislatures if there had been some more conclusive research such as this to present.

What sort of action should be taken against this level of suppression, which could have saved potentially hundreds of lives? Let us know, then write Congress.

[New York Times]

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