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Public Citizen: NHTSA Withholding Data On Cell Phone Traffic Deaths

Posted by Chrissie Cole
Thursday, December 04, 2008 11:14 AM EST
Category: On The Road
Tags: Protecting Your Family, Major Medical, Auto Accidents, Motor Vehicle Accidents, Cell Phone Use, Distracted Drivers


IMAGE SOURCE: © iStockPhoto / Driving & talking / author: MSR photo

In a federal lawsuit filed on December 1, Public Citizen claims that records showing the connection of driver cell phone use and traffic fatalities are being withheld from the public.

The lawsuit, filed in the US District Court of Washington, DC, on behalf of the Center for Auto Safety asks the court to order the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to release records – including a study that estimates traffic deaths attributable to cell phone use.

“The documents contain information about the risks of using a cell phone while driving, including the number of people that have died as a result of crashes caused by cell phone use,” says Margaret Kwoka, a Public Citizen attorney. “The NHTSA should not be withholding these important safety facts from the public.”

The Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit organization, first requested the documents in March, but the NHTSA claimed that research on driver distraction was exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

In a follow-up demand, the Center for Auto Safety, received some documents, but not all. The NHTSA claimed the remaining documents are “internal briefing documents,” not subject to release.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, called his organization’s lawsuit a “first step to getting the NHTSA to do something… It’s time to make statistics known, so that we can adopt effective policies to make sure that driving and talking doesn’t become the next drinking and driving.”

In 2003 NHTSA officials drafted a letter to the nation’s governors warning that state laws requiring hands-free use of cell phones could make matters worse by encouraging more gabbing while behind the wheel. But Transportation officials objected, the letter was never sent and the study was buried.

On October 31, Mother Jones published a Web-exclusive story by Myron Levin, former LA Times investigative reporter, telling the story of a family torn apart by their son’s tragic death at the hands of a distracted driver. The story also highlighted a 2003 NHTSA review of worldwide research on the distraction posed by cell phones.

The agency’s fatality estimate and other briefing reports and papers only became known to the public after LA Times and Mother Jones obtained documents through unofficial channels.

Several states and municipalities have banned cell phone use while driving and the issue is still a major issue in state legislature.

“Talking and driving is as deadly as drinking and driving,” says Ditlow. “The myth that hands-free cell phones are safe will be destroyed by the release of the study and its findings.”

On another note, new software called DriveAssist from Aegis Mobility Inc., is aimed at stopping teens from talking on the cell phone while driving.

The Aegis Mobility software blocks inbound calls and text messages when it determines that the cell phone is within a moving vehicle. #

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