Federal agency withheld distracted-driver research, report says

Posted July 21, 2009, at 6:02 a.m.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration gathered hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the hazards of drivers using cell phones, but withheld the information from the public in part out of fear of angering Congress, a newspaper reported Monday.

The former head of the traffic safety agency, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, told The New York Times that he was urged to withhold the findings to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who warned the agency against lobbying states. Runge said transit officials told him he could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing if Congress thought the agency had crossed the line into lobbying, the Times said.

Critics say that the failure of the Transportation Department to pursue the role of driving distractions in car crashes has resulted in traffic deaths and allowed multitasking while driving to grow.

The research findings were obtained by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen through Freedom of Information requests, the Times said. The newspaper posted the documents on its Web site Monday night.

The findings included:

- Cell phone usage by drivers increased 50 percent, from 4 percent in 2000 to 6 percent in 2002.

- Driver distraction contributes to about 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes.

- Cell phone use is growing as a distraction while driving.

Draft recommendations from NHTSA included that “drivers not use these devices when driving except in an emergency.”

Legislation forbidding the use of hand-held cell phones while driving was not recommended because it does not address the problem and may instead lead drivers to think handsfree phones are safer.

The problem is that a cell phone conversation takes the driver’s focus off the road, the studies showed.

The Times said the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen will release the documents Tuesday.

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