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Government Withheld Important Safety Data Showing Drivers’ Hands-Free Cell Phone Use Is Just as Hazardous as Handheld Use

July 21, 2009  

Government Withheld Important Safety Data Showing Drivers’ Hands-Free Cell Phone Use Is Just as Hazardous as Handheld Use

Public Citizen Lawsuit Yields Hidden Records, Exposes Extent of Cover Up

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Since 2003, the government has known that drivers talking on their cell phones experience the same potentially deadly distraction whether they are using a handheld device or hands-free technology, records obtained by consumer advocacy groups Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety show.

By keeping this information secret from the public for the past six years, the government has endangered even more lives, the groups said today. Cities and states across the country have passed laws and ordinances requiring drivers to use hands-free phones, mistakenly believing those devices to be safe and encouraging drivers to use them. 

By withholding this data, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) led consumers to believe that it was safe to talk on their cell phones while driving if they kept both hands on the wheel. But these documents show that it is the conversation itself, not the device used to hear it, that causes “inattention blindness,” a cognitive state that slows a driver’s reaction time and limits his ability to detect changes in road conditions. Further, well-documented scientific research and driving simulations analyzed in the NHTSA documents found that drivers using hands-free technology talk on the phone with greater frequency and for longer intervals.

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

The Center for Auto Safety is petitioning NHTSA today to restrict the availability of two-way communication features through in-vehicle systems while the vehicle is in motion, relying in part on information revealed in the released records as a basis for the petition. The Center also is asking NHTSA to support state programs designed to limit use of cell phones – whether hands-free or handheld – by drivers.

Ditlow tried in 2008 to obtain the records through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request, but NHTSA refused to provide them. The agency claimed an exemption to the FOIA law that allows nondisclosure of deliberative documents that pre-date policy decisions.

Represented by lawyers at Public Citizen, the Center for Auto Safety then sued, arguing that the data in question were not deliberative, but consisted of factual accounts, statements and summaries expanding the risks of all cell phone use by drivers.    In response to the lawsuit, the agency turned over hundreds of pages of documents.

“It is a travesty that NHTSA kept secret factual information that could have saved lives,” said Public Citizen attorney Margaret Kwoka, who handled the case. “Although FOIA protects an agency’s decision-making process, these documents reflect facts about safety risks that the public had every right to see.”  

READ the documents.