Tuesday, July 21, 2009

U.S. Withheld Data on Risks of Distracted Driving

From the New York Times:

The highway safety researchers estimated that cellphone use by drivers caused around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents over all in 2002.

The researchers also shelved a draft letter they had prepared for Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to send, warning states that hands-free laws might not solve the problem.

That letter said that hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason: a cellphone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, takes drivers’ focus off the road, studies showed.


The former head of the highway safety agency said he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states.

Critics say that rationale and the failure of the Transportation Department, which oversees the highway agency, to more vigorously pursue distracted driving has cost lives and allowed to blossom a culture of behind-the-wheel multitasking.

“We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up,” said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.

More here.

This fits into an overall pattern of behavior by the Bush administration of suppressing scientific data for political and ideological reasons, about which I have commented numerous times on this blog, and further condemnation is not necessary. Except, maybe, to say "Fucking assholes!"

At least the information is finally getting out.

Full disclosure: I once rear-ended someone while I was talking on my cell phone. I got a ticket after a brief "investigation" by the cop on the scene, but my insurance company let me off the hook, and sued the guy two cars up who didn't have brake lights, which is what caused the car I hit to come to an instant stop when it rear-ended this guy. Anyway, even though there were mitigating circumstances making me financially not responsible, I'm convinced that I could have avoided the accident if I hadn't been talking on the phone.

And this suppressed federal information adds credence to my belief: talking on the phone causes car collisions. And it's not because your hand is on the phone instead of the wheel; it's because talking on the phone takes your focus off driving, and it happens in a way that doesn't happen when your conversation partner is in the car with you. That is, the kind of conversation you have over the phone is different from the kind of conversation you have with a passenger.

This seems obvious to me, but then I've lived through the experience. We need to ban cell phone use while driving right now. Too bad if it impinges on your "freedom." Seat belts do that, too. Drunk driving laws do the same thing--like the excerpt above says, driving while on the phone could be as dangerous as drunk driving. Slam dunk. Just fucking ban the practice. Right now.