The Truth About Cars and Cellphones

Editorial
 
 
Published: July 22, 2009
 
We find it terrifying every time we get on the highway and see all of those multitasking drivers racing along while they yammer and text on cellphones, juggle hot coffee and a Mc-whatever or attend to personal grooming in the rearview mirror. So it is especially distressing to learn that in 2003, officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration quashed a proposal for a large-scale study of cellphone risks and withheld hundreds of pages of research that warned about the dangers of cellphone use while driving.
 
That information — including estimates that cellphoning drivers caused 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002 — was finally pried loose this week by a freedom of information lawsuit.
 
The former leader of the agency told The Times’s Matt Richtel that he was urged by officials at the Department of Transportation to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing the Congressional appropriators who controlled the highway budget. They had made clear that they wanted the agency to gather safety data but not to “lobby” the states.
 
What we want to know is: Since when did trying to save lives constitute lobbying?
 
The researchers had rightly proposed a warning to state governors about the initial finding that laws mandating the use of hands-free devices did not solve the problem. The conversation is the distraction. This is a finding since confirmed by other studies that show a driver on the phone is four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and is comparable to someone with 0.08 blood-alcohol content, the threshold for drunken driving.

Six years later, the Transportation Department advises drivers to avoid cellphones except in emergencies. But far too many Americans now consider phoning while driving to be standard behavior. The department estimates that roughly 12 percent of drivers are on the phone at any given time — twice the estimate of its own researchers when their effort to document the risks was rebuffed.

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