Washington (DC) -The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration tried to sit on studies which proved that cellphone use presented a significant danger to drivers.
The agency kept out of public view hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the dangers of driving while using cell phones. The Administration had conducted a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to address the safety risk of using cell phones while driving in 2003. However the study was never completed and was stuck on ice
However it was starting to show that cell phone use was a major factor in traffic accidents. It looked like the highway safety agency estimated that cell phone use by drivers caused about 955 deaths and 240,000 accidents in 2002. But the information seemed to indicate that it was not just people holding a cell phone that was causing the accidents but actually talking on the phone, hands-free or not.
"What the government knew is that talking and driving is just as bad as drinking and driving," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. "It doesn't matter whether it's handheld or hands-free, it's the distraction of talking to someone else, the conversation itself that causes the inattention that leads to crashes, deaths and injuries."
The highway safety agency did a one-year study of 100 drivers in which cameras were placed inside their cars to monitor their driving habits. That study found that drivers talking with handheld devices while driving were at 1.3 times greater risk of an accident, while those who were dialing were at 3 times greater risk, than non-cell-phone-using drivers.
Researchers called for a broad study of 10,000 or more drivers but then realised that the US Congress would be angry with what the study showed. It also meant that the agency would have to lobby States which would make it unpopular and lead to cut backs on funding. The agency was also worried about stepping on the toes of drivers and the cell phone manufacturers.
The data was finally released yesterday in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by the Center for Auto Safety.