Today, the New York Times posted a story reporting that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) withheld more than 250 pages of research into the risks of driving while operating a cell phone. The 2003 government report was obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit pursued by consumer advocacy groups Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen. (The full report can be accessed here as a pdf.) The Times article exposes that the government learned then of the significant dangers associated with combining telephone use with driving, and it accuses the government of suppressing the findings for political reasons.
The general conclusion from the 2003 NHTSA report:
This summation mirrors those from numerous other studies, which have often related the dangerous distraction of phone use while driving, including texting, to alcohol-induced impairment.
The NHTSA report details the complexities associated with studying the associated risks, from defining what is a distraction, to making real-world measurements. However, the report does provide a “Summary of what we know”:
- The number of cell phone subscribers (and users) in the United States continues to grow, as does the number of drivers using cell phones while driving.
- Use of either hand-held or hands-free phone increases the risk of a crash.
- Data suggests that the use of cell phones per subscriber is increasing (frequency and duration of calls).
- User demographics are related to how, when and where cell phones are used and the magnitude and types of crashes involved.
- Young, novice drivers who also use cell phones or other wireless communication devices are of particular concern.
- Nature of the problem is changing with advances in technology and increased use.
- Context of the driving environment influence the willingness of drivers to use the phone.
- Frequency and duration of use, both while driving and overall, influence the risk of a crash.
- The public is concerned about the safety implications surrounding the use of cellular phones while driving.
- Crash data is incomplete, inaccurate, and difficult to obtain.
- More than half of the States have proposed restrictive legislation.
- A variety of research studies are ongoing.
The recommendation the report has to users:
Using wireless communications devices while driving can be distracting and increase the risk of crash and injury. Therefore, NHTSA recommends that drivers not use these devices while driving, except in [an] emergency. This recommendation applies to both hand-held and hands-free devices.
Just this weekend, Consumer Reports Deputy Technical Director David Champion addressed the question “Should cell phone use by drivers be illegal?” in the New York Times.