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Editorial: Driving, Dialing, and Dying

Philadelphia Inquirer

Mayor Nutter signed legislation in April

that banned the use of cell phones while driving.

The device most motorists first knew as a "car phone" is wreaking havoc on the nation’s highways – where a person yakking on a cell phone behind the wheel is just as dangerous as a drunken driver.

Deep in conversation, many motorists are unaware as they blow through red lights and swerve across traffic lanes. Government officials, public health experts, and the driving public should be alarmed by the dangers. But instead, federal officials since 2003 have suppressed reams of data on the highway risks of cell phones. That may explain why the nation lags so far behind in regulating this deadly driving hazard. In a climate of don’t tell, can’t ask, neither citizens nor policy- makers can be expected to make informed decisions on cell-phone risks. Two consumer groups, the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, unearthed evidence that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) withheld "hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers," the New York Times first reported. The highway agency also decided not to pursue its own researchers’ recommendation for a massive study to nail down the risks. It’s no surprise the bureaucrats’ chief fear was that a cell-phone safety warning would anger the Republican-led Congress, triggering funding cuts. Under then-President George W. Bush, regulation of all types was out of vogue. The price for that inaction, however, was paid by motorists and bystanders killed and injured in thousands of accidents attributed to drivers distracted by phones and other devices. Not to mention the higher insurance premiums passed on to all drivers to cover the cost of the wrecks. Any other safety hazard so clearly identified as the cause of 2,600 annual traffic deaths and 330,000 accidents would have triggered demands for regulation. But just a few states, including New Jersey, ban hand-held phones in favor of hands-free devices. Even fewer states are considering a ban on the more scary practice of drivers texting. Since recent research has revealed that dialing drivers are four times as likely to crash, the federally chartered National Safety Council rightly called for a ban on motorist calls. That may be an uphill battle with drivers so attached to these gadgets amid constant industry sales pitches. But NHTSA finally could alter those views with a concerted safety push. Just as motorists were persuaded to embrace seat belts, they can be won over in preventing the dangers of driving while distracted by a "car phone."



Hands Free Cell Phones Still Risky Honolulu joined other local governments last month in banning the use of hand-held cell phones while driving, creating the false impression that using a hands-free phone is safe while behind the wheel. Shown to have withheld evidence from the public during the Bush administration about the danger of driving while using a cell phone, the National Highway Safety Administration should come clean six years late. As the July 1 ban approached, we warned that motorists using a Bluetooth headset or other hands-free device not be led to think they are safe from the danger of distraction. Research has shown hands-free is as dangerous as hand-held, equivalent to driving with a .08 blood alcohol content. A study published 12 years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine arrived at that assessment. Eight years ago, two researchers at the University of Utah found that the distraction comes from conversing on the cell phones, not handling them. In a story published in this section yesterday, The New York Times reported that documents released under a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit showed that the Highway Safety Administration decided not to make public research and warnings about using a phone while driving, in part, officials said, because of concerns about angering Congress. The documents confirm a report last October in Mother Jones magazine and noted at that time in this space that federal transportation officials drafted a letter in 2003 for then-Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to send to governors. The letter, which Mineta says he never saw, would have warned governors that banning hand-held cell phones while driving "may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use." Jeffrey Runge, then head of the highway safety agency, told the Times that his "advisers upstairs" warned against angering members of the House Appropriations Committee, which controls the agency’s funding. He told Mother Jones that the decision not to send the letter was made "above my pay grade." In a recent letter to the editor, City Councilman Gary Okino, chairman of the Council’s transportation committee, wrote that "common sense and research indicate that taking your eyes off the road for even a few seconds (to dial a number or see who is calling) is even more dangerous" than "simply talking on a cell phone while driving." Actually, dialing must be performed by hand on both hand-held and hands-free cell phones. Research has concluded that the distraction comes not from a motorist briefly taking his or her eyes off the road but from the diversion of a driver’s attention "to an engaging cognitive context other than the one immediately associated with driving." It is why a driver on a cell phone appears to other motorists to be in another zone. Okino says the Council can consider broader restriction "with time." Unfortunately, with time come increased fatalities caused by cell-phone use by drivers — 955 nationwide in 2002, according to the highway safety agency, and undoubtedly more often now as cell-phone use has increased. https://www.starbulletin.com/editorials/20090723_Hands-free_cell_phones_still_risky.html


Editorial: Face facts on driving and cell phones

Jul 24, 2009

None of this will come as news to anyone who has been nearly run down in a pedestrian crosswalk by a driver happily prattling away on a cell phone. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, apparently bullied by Congress, felt that the actual proof of the dangers of distracted driving was too sensitive to share with the public.

The New York Times, in stories about distracted drivers, cited studies that showed drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers and just as likely to crash as a driver with a 0.8 blood-alcohol level, the usual standard for a DUI charge. One 2003 study showed that cell-phone distractions caused 2,600 traffic deaths a year. Another put the annual toll at 955, still a lot of needless deaths.

The NHTSA sensed the same dangers – that’s its job, after all – and, according to the Times, gathered hundreds of pages of research documenting the dangers. Apparently a particularly sensitive finding was that driving with hands-free cell phones, thought to be a panacea for the distraction of handheld phones, was as dangerous and possibly more so because they engendered a sense of overconfidence.

Members of Congress, some of whom controlled the agency’s purse strings, apparently feared that the NHTSA would use its findings to persuade states to enact restrictions on the whole new generation of gadgets that allow drivers to multitask. They cowed the agency into withholding its research, and plans for an ambitious long-term study of 10,000 drivers was shelved. The research came to light because of Freedom of Information suits filed by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen.

This happened under the Bush administration, which was notably parsimonious with information. But the NHTSA’s relations with Congress aside, the taxpayers paid for this information; it is, in a very real sense, ours. And underlying this secrecy is the condescending attitude that the public can’t be trusted with certain kinds of information.

But this kind of information is exactly what’s needed, not just in order to help Congress fashion smart public policies, but to help convince the public such policies are needed.

At some level, everyone who has caught himself swerving from lane to lane while punching a number or screeching to a halt at a stoplight almost missed in the heat of conversation knows using cell phones can be a dangerous distraction. But we are reluctant to face that fact, mostly because we’ve become dependent on being able to call anyone, anytime. Besides, we constantly multitask, and consider ourselves pretty good at it.

The uncomfortable fact, borne out in these statistics, is that driving a car is one activity that does not lend itself to multitasking. Driving safely requires paying attention, at least more attention than most people can muster while talking on the phone.

It’s time lawmakers – and especially drivers – face the facts about the danger of phoning and driving.




One Call That Could Save Lives

By Derrick Z. Jackson, Globe Columnist  |  July 28, 2009


WITH A WAVE of his transparency wand, President Obama could save thousands of lives on our roads. He can let the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finally do its job on researching the risk of cellphone use while driving.


Under the Freedom of Information Act, the advocacy groups Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety found that the highway safety agency quietly let die a 2003 proposal to study 10,000 drivers on the risk of using cellphones while at the wheel. The agency wanted to do a giant, conclusive study because it was the missing link that might confirm evidence from smaller studies how dangerous the practice is. The most well-known national estimate of annual vehicle fatalities involving cellphones is 2,600 from a Harvard study.


But Jeffrey Runge, who was then head of the highway safety agency, told The New York Times last week that his agency was pressured into silence by members of Congress and officials in the Department of Transportation. The agency got the message that its funding might be cut by Congress if cellphone bans became a cause celebre, enraging millions of American drivers against the government. There would also, of course, have been the ire of telephone and telecom companies, which have poured $186 million into elections since 1990, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.


Runge told the Times that “based on the research, there was a possibility of this becoming a really big problem.’’


But true to the behavior of the Bush administration, which never wanted “sound science’’ to inform sound policy on anything, Runge said he was asked by John Flaherty, the chief of staff for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, only for enough evidence “to not create enemies among all the stakeholders.’’


Dead was a draft letter the highway safety agency prepared for Mineta to send to governors. The letter, as well as a draft policy, said that driver distraction contributes to a quarter of traffic accidents and “the use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities.’’ The letter also stated that hands-free phones were no more safe than handheld phones and thus any laws that would ban handheld phones but permit hands-free devices “will not be effective’’

and “may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe.’’


Obama has a life-and-death chance to be effective. In May, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a campaign to boost seat-belt use from 83 percent to 90 percent, saying this could save 1,652 lives a year. “Wearing a seat belt costs nothing and yet it’s the single most effective traffic safety device ever invented,’’ LaHood said.


Given the Harvard data that suggests that at least 15,600 people have died in motor vehicle accidents involving cellphones since the highway safety agency’s 2003 work died in silence, LaHood should also say, “Putting away your cellphone while driving costs nothing and it’s the single most effective traffic safety act we do not have to invent.’’


Currently on the agency’s home page, there is not a single item on the risks associated with driving while talking on cellphones. There are advisories on drunken driving, seat-belt use, child seats, roll-over ratings, speeding, and leaving children in the car in summer heat, but you have to click to “Vehicle Safety Research’’ to get to reports on cellphone use. That alone downplays this hazardous practice.


As a corrective, LaHood should immediately post the highway safety agency’s

2003 work on the home pages of the agency as well as the Transportation Department. It should also finally commission the 10,000-driver study for the missing research link.


But studies since 2003, such as the one that says that driving while talking on a cellphone is like driving drunk, are persuasive enough for Obama and LaHood to announce far more serious policies. Currently the Highway Traffic Safety Administration merely suggests that drivers “refrain’’ from talking on cellphones. The science cries out for a nationwide ban.


One of Obama’s first presidential declarations was that government transparency “will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness.’’ In this case, transparency will save thousands of lives.