Govt. cell phone study kept quiet?

July 21, 2009 3:05:57 PM PDT
Did government bureaucrats conceal information and possibly cost lives? Two consumer groups say officials in Washington had stacks of documents showing the dangers of driving while using a cell phone.But they charge their agency kept the news quiet for fear of losing its taxpayer funding.

We now know that Transportation Department officials kept secret hundreds of pages of research that likely would have discouraged cell phone use by drivers and possibly saved lives.

The 2002 research, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, is now being made public for the first time, thanks to two consumer advocacy groups who sued under the Freedom of Information Act.

"If this information were out there, then you would see all sorts of counter-measures being taken. You would have public service messages saying, 'Don't talk and drive,' just like we have public service messages saying 'don't drink and drive,'" said Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director, Center for Auto Safety in Washington.

Among the findings: highway safety researchers estimated that, in 2002, cell phone use by drivers contributed to around 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents.

"Today cell phone use is nearly twice what it was in 2002. So the numbers could be as high as 5000 deaths each year."

The former head of NHTSA claims he was urged to withhold the research to avoid angering members of Congress who wanted the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data.

"We don't know whether the cell phone industry pressured the government to hide these studies or not. They clearly had an economic interest. But we haven't found the smoking gun of the cell phone industry yet."

The research also showed that hands-free laws might not solve the problem. That's because it's the cell phone conversation itself and not just holding the phone that takes a driver's focus off the road.