The Progressive


A project of Common Dreams

For Immediate Release
Contact: Phone: (202) 588-1000

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


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.

Public Citizen is a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that champions the public interest in the halls of power. We defend democracy, resist corporate power and work to ensure that government works for the people - not for big corporations. Founded in 1971, we now have 500,000 members and supporters throughout the country.

(202) 588-1000