It is hard to understand how the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration thought that warning the public and Congress about the dangers of cell phone use while driving was outside its mission. Safety, in case it forgot, is part of the agency’s name. Documenting — and sharing — the risks of this increasingly common behavior would be a big help to lawmakers, at the federal and state level, as they repeatedly consider bans on some or all cell phone use while driving.
Maine lawmakers this spring passed a law making failure to maintain control of a motor vehicle while distracted a traffic infraction. Distracted can mean using a cell phone or other device not necessary to the operation of the vehicle. Previously, the Legislature put limits on cell phone use and text messaging among teen drivers, but didn’t address cell phone use while driving among adults.
While lawmakers had access to information about the effects of cell phone use behind the wheel, a comprehensive study certainly would have been helpful. This is where NHTSA failed in its responsibility.
The New York Times first reported last week that the administration withheld hundreds of pages of research on cell phone use while driving “because of concerns about angering Congress.” This is especially odd for an agency whose Web site proclaims: “Our Mission: Save lives, prevent injuries, reduce vehicle-related crashes.”
If that’s their mission, shouldn’t sharing information about a problem that kills people, causes injuries and contributes to vehicle-related crashes have been a priority?
According to the NHTSA research, it is estimated that cell phone use by drivers caused 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002. They also found that hands-free devices did not eliminate the risk because being involved in a conversation, not simply holding a phone, diverts drivers’ attention from the road.
Based on the preliminary research they did (they proposed to do more, but were denied by higher NHTSA officials), the researchers warned: “We therefore recommend that the drivers not use wireless communication devices, including text messaging systems, when driving, except in an emergency.”
The NHTSA report was obtained by two consumer advocacy groups — the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen — that filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents.
The agency’s current policy, according to a spokesman, is that people shouldn’t use their cell phone while driving. Backing up that policy with data would have made it stronger, which is what NHTSA, Congress and the public should want.