DOT chief 'deeply concerned' about dangers of cell-phone use while driving

Statement comes in response to release of previously withheld documents on cell phone use and highway deaths

Federal officials today acknowledged the dangers of using a cell phone or texting while driving, saying the U.S. secretary of Transportation is "deeply concerned" about drivers distracted by using cell phones or texting.

The Department of Transportation statement comes after the release of federal documents obtained under pressure by consumer advocacy groups showing for the first time that federal transportation officials were aware that cell-phone use while driving caused hundreds of highway deaths annually as early as 2002.

In an e-mail statement to Computerworld, a DOT spokesman said that DOT Secretary Ray LaHood "is deeply concerned that drivers are taking their focus off the road to send text messages or use the cell phone."

While the statement does not urge drivers to stop driving while making calls, it adds that "distracted driving causes crashes, and we want to stress that the best way to avoid accidents is for drivers to keep their eyes and their concentration on the road when they get behind the wheel."

The DOT issued the statement following the release of hundreds of pages documents from 2003 obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by two consumer advocacy groups, the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen. The documents were first provided to the New York Times, and also posted to the Center for Auto Safety Web site.

The documents include findings in which highway safety researchers estimated in 2003 that cell phone use by drivers caused 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002.

The documents also include a draft letter to the nation's governors from the DOT secretary at the time, Norman Mineta, who was appointed by President Bush, stating that the "use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities." However, the letter was never sent to the governors.

The draft letter also notes a finding that scientific research had demonstrated even in 2003 that there is "little, if any, difference" between using a hands-free device and a cell phone, because having a phone conversation itself "degrades a driver's performance."

The letter even recommends to the governors that drivers in their states not use cell phones when driving except in emergencies, and recommends that states not pass legislation requiring hands-free phones because such legislation could "erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving."

The draft letter and the other documents never became public until attorneys at Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety sought their release from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a DOT agency, starting in 2008. The NHTSA would not comment on the matter, referring all queries to the DOT.

Both groups said the delay in the release of information has meant that more people have died in motor vehicle accidents involving cell phone use in the subsequent six years, and that legislation by various states that might have saved lives was delayed or diluted.

"People died in crashes because the government withheld this information," said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, in an interview. "States passed laws and took action to restrict only handheld cell-phone use assuming hands-free cell-phone use was safe. The studies NHTSA concealed showed that all cell-phone use is as hazardous as drinking and driving."

Ditlow said the findings showed that a driver using a cell phone was four times as likely to be involved in a crash as other drivers, while the dangers of texting while driving were even higher.

Ditlow said LaHood's comments don't go far enough in urging drivers to stop using cell phones while driving or in spurring the states to take strong action.

"No, the statement doesn't go far enough," Ditlow said. "At least now [LaHood] is concerned, but before, he wasn't. That's some movement."

Ditlow said the Obama administration seems to be willing to recognize that reducing traffic accidents through safety campaigns can help lower health-care costs, a top Obama priority. "The change in administrations [since Bush] is positive," he said. "They are more sensitive to major safety problems."

Margaret Kwoka, an attorney at Public Citizen who fought to release the documents, said in an interview that if the documents had been released six years ago, state laws restricting cell-phone use and driving would have been passed. No state has an outright ban on cell-phone use while driving. Five states, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington, prohibit cell-phone use when driving, but still allow hands-free devices. Various laws banning cell phone use for young drivers or school bus drivers are in effect in 23 states, while 14 states ban texting while driving, according to Public Citizen and other sources.

The Center for Auto Safety favors a "flat out ban" on cell phone use while driving that should be enforced by the states, Ditlow said. Meanwhile, the NHTSA's role should be to support public information campaigns showing the risks of such behavior, while the DOT could withhold federal highway money from states that fail to enact laws, similar to the way the federal government encourages seatbelt laws in the states.

Ditlow said his group is also planning to petition the NHTSA to require auto makers that install cell phones in cars to include technology to disable them when the car is moving, while still allowing the installed phone's ability to send a 911 call in the event of a crash.

Ditlow said that since the documents were first compiled in 2002, the percentage of drivers using cell phones while on the road has doubled to 12%, up from 6%. During the last six years, more research has been amassed showing the dangers.

One researcher, psychology professor David Strayer of the University of Utah, has written more than a dozen papers on studies showing the adverse impact of driving while using a cell phone. In his recent research using a driving simulator, he found that when drivers practice driving while talking on a hands-free cell phone, they are unable to significantly improve their safe driving ability.

In an email interview, Strayer said that academic research has long shown cell-phone usage and driving don't mix, but "the politics of the issue have interfered with coherent legislation."

Ditlow said cell-phone companies fought against such laws several years ago, but seem to have lessened their lobbying efforts now that smartphones and other wireless devices have become more popular and used commonly outside of cars. Even the CTIA, which represents the major wireless carriers, has recently urged laws banning texting while driving and cautions against cell-phone use while driving, he noted.

"They seem to be neutral" on whether laws should be passed, he said.

A recognition by average drivers that cell phone usage is similar to drunken driving in causing fatalities is what will make the biggest difference in the creation of more laws, Strayer said.

"When the voices of the families of people killed by cell phone drivers become loud enough, I think you will see legislation," Strayer said. "But who knows when that will happen."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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