Political Pressures Suppress Cellphone Safety Research

Dennis Faas's picture

The agency in charge of U.S. road safety kept secret hundreds of pages of data about the dangers of using cellphones while driving. The former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says he feared publishing the details could jeopardize Congressional funding.

Dr. Jeffrey Runge says the data was so compelling that he wanted to write to all of the country's state governors and warn them of the dangers. He also wanted to publish the data, including a July 2003 memo concluding with the advice that "drivers not use wireless communication devices, including text messaging systems, when driving, except in an emergency."

Political Pressures Prevent Fess-Up

However, Runge says an adviser for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta pressured him into keeping the research quiet. There is no evidence that Mineta himself was ever aware of the research. Runge inferred from conversations that some congressmen would see the report's conclusions as political lobbying rather than mere data-gathering, and that this could affect future funding.

Mike Goodman, who led the NHTSA's research, says cellphone manufacturers were aware of the study and "frequently" contacted him about it. He believes these companies may have added to the pressure to keep the research under wraps, but has no specific evidence of this. (Source: nytimes.com)

Campaign groups including the Center for Auto Safety and also Public Citizen obtained the documents under freedom of information laws. They have passed them on to the New York Times, which has published them in full.

995 Deaths and 240,000 Injuries in 2002

The research estimated that in 2002, cellphone use caused 955 deaths and 240,000 injuries. However, because most police forces don't gather details of cellphone use in accidents, the researchers had to make an assumption about how often drivers used their phone. They opted for a figure of six per cent of the time, but now say that may be half the true number.

The study also concluded that laws which ban drivers holding cellphones but allow hands-free calls do little to increase safety because the dangers come mainly from mental distraction. (Source: google.com)

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