Bush Administration Must Release Research on Traffic Deaths Related to Cell Phone Use, Public Citizen Says

Dec. 2, 2008

Bush Administration Must Release Research on Traffic Deaths Related to Cell Phone Use, Public Citizen Says

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration Is ViolatingFederal Freedom of Information Act

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is unlawfully withholding records that detail the relationship between driver cell phone use and traffic fatalities, Public Citizen claimed Monday in a federal lawsuit filed under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).

The Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer organization, first requested the documents in March but NHTSA attorneys rejected the request, saying that all records relating to their review of research on driver distraction were exempt from disclosure under FOIA. After a follow-up demand, NHTSA turned over some of the records but refused to release the most important of the requested documents, claiming that the records are “internal briefing documents” not subject to release. 

In a complaint filed late Monday in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, Public Citizen, on behalf of the Center for Auto Safety, asked the court to order NHTSA to release the records, including a study that estimates traffic deaths attributable to cell phone use.

In 2003, then-Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta drafted a letter based on the study to every governor urging them to take action against both hand-held and hands-free cell phones. The letter was never sent and the study buried, said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety.

“Driving and talking is as deadly as drinking and driving,” Ditlow said. “Release of this study will destroy the myth that hands-free cell phones are safe.”

By withholding the documents, NHTSA not only is violating FOIA, it is doing the public a disservice, said Margaret Kwoka, an attorney for Public Citizen.

“The documents contain factual information about the risks of using a cell phone while driving, including the number of people who have died as a result of crashes caused by cell phone use,” Kwoka said. “NHTSA should not be withholding these important safety facts from the public.”