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Groups Expose Suppression of Research Showing Talking on the Phone While Driving Is Unsafe

As a Metro Atlanta car wreck lawyer, I was amazed to see a July 21 New York Times article reporting that the federal government may have suppressed research showing that even hands-free cell phone use is a dangerous distraction for drivers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the federal agency responsible for studying car crash data, decided in 2003 not to make its research public for political reasons, the Times reported. The findings were made public after the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen petitioned for its release under the Freedom of Information Act.

This is big news for Georgia traffic accident attorneys like me, because it calls attention to a problem responsible for a substantial amount of serious crashes. Not every driver believes cell phone use is a safety threat, and some of them actively resist giving up a tool that has become very convenient for them. That could change if the federal government chooses to throw its weight behind strong research and a public awareness campaign, in the way that it did for seat belt use and intoxicated driving. Its failure to do so for allegedly political reasons means it may have failed to prevent thousands of crashes a year, including crashes causing wrongful deaths and catastrophic personal injuries.

The article said high-level Department of Transportation officials told Dr. Jeffrey Runge, head of the NHTSA, that the agency’s funding could be in danger if it wrote to state governors about the findings, since it could be interpreted as “lobbying” the states. Runge recalled being asked whether they had enough evidence to avoid angering stakeholders, including the House Appropriations Committee, the voters it serves and the mobile phone industry. Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety said this reasoning raised serious concerns. The research was analogous to research the NHTSA does on other topics, such as seat belt use, which has never been construed as lobbying. By allowing the research to be suppressed for political reasons, the NHTSA abdicated its responsibility to prevent deaths and injuries, Ditlow said.

The research itself (in PDF format), a review of more than 150 scientific studies, came to a damning conclusion: Talking on the phone while driving noticeably harms drivers’ behavior and performance, regardless of whether they use a handset or a hands-free earpiece. In both cases, the study found, the cognitive demands of talking on the phone reduced reaction and information processing times, causing clear safety problems. This contradicts the prevailing approach to driver safety. No state bans cell phone use altogether, although five states and several cities ban hand-held phone use for everyone, and 21 states and the District of Columbia restrict it for drivers under 18. The NHTSA had called for its own study of cell phone use involving 10,000 drivers, but those plans were quashed along with the study. Until the safety groups’ petition, only a bibliography was publicly available.

Other highlights of the study:

  • Driver distractions, including but not limited to wireless devices, contribute to about 25% of all crashes. The agency had no data breaking down individual distractions.
  • In 2003, 6% of driving time was spent on the phone, which was up from 4% in 2000.
  • Research showed little safety difference between use of handheld and hands-free devices. The NHTSA’s official recommendation is to avoid all phone use while driving, except in emergencies.
  • The agency does not recommend hands-free-only laws because they “will not address the problem.”
  • It did recommend that states pay special attention to young and novice drivers’ use of wireless devices

Gwinnett County auto accident lawyer Charles Scholle represents people throughout Metro Atlanta and the state of Georgia who were seriously hurt in a crash caused by someone else’s carelessness. That includes crashes caused by cell phone use and other distractions in the car. Our office can help crash victims negotiate for a fair and complete settlement with insurance companies — or, if necessary, pursue that settlement through a Georgia car crash lawsuit. Our job, our goal and our pleasure is to get victims the fullest possible compensation for their injuries and all of their crash-related costs, including lost income. And because we offer free, confidential consultations, there’s no risk in speaking to us about your rights and your case.

If you or a loved one has been in a serious accident with a driver distracted by a wireless device or any other distraction, the Law Offices of P. Charles Scholle can help. To set up a free consultation, please contact us online or call toll-free at 1-866-972-5287.

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