None of this will come as news to anyone who has been nearly run down in a pedestrian crosswalk by a driver happily prattling away on a cell phone. But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, apparently bullied by Congress, felt that the actual proof of the dangers of distracted driving was too sensitive to share with the public.
The New York Times, in stories about distracted drivers, cited studies that showed drivers using cell phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers and just as likely to crash as a driver with a 0.8 blood-alcohol level, the usual standard for a DUI charge. One 2003 study showed that cell-phone distractions caused 2,600 traffic deaths a year. Another put the annual toll at 955, still a lot of needless deaths.
The NHTSA sensed the same dangers — that’s its job, after all — and, according to the Times, gathered hundreds of pages of research documenting the dangers. Apparently a particularly sensitive finding was that driving with hands-free cell phones, thought to be a panacea for the distraction of handheld phones, was as dangerous and possibly more so because they engendered a sense of overconfidence.
Members of Congress, some of whom controlled the agency’s purse strings, apparently feared that the NHTSA would use its findings to persuade states to enact restrictions on the whole new generation of gadgets that allow drivers to multitask. They cowed the agency into withholding its research, and plans for an ambitious long-term study of 10,000 drivers was shelved. The research came to light because of Freedom of Information suits filed by the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen.
This happened under the Bush administration, which was notably parsimonious with information. But the NHTSA’s relations with Congress aside, the taxpayers paid for this information; it is, in a very real sense, ours. And underlying this secrecy is the condescending attitude that the public can’t be trusted with certain kinds of information.
As we said, nothing, as relayed by the Times, comes as any kind of a surprise.