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Driving While Distracted

By Paul O’Reilly

A federal agency made headlines this week for something it didn’t do. Apparently, back in 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration decided not to commission a long-term study about the dangers of cell-phone use by motorists, because it was afraid of antagonizing members of Congress! It also suppressed hundreds of pages of existing research and warnings about driver cell-phone use for the same reason.

The facts came to light this week when two consumer advocacy groups filed a Freedom of Information lawsuit to have the relevant documents made public. Copies were provided to the New York Times, which made them available on its web site.

The documents show that highway safety researchers estimated that cell-phone use by drivers caused over 950 fatalities in 2002 and were responsible for nearly a quarter of a million  accidents. The research assumed that 6 percent of drivers were talking on the phone at any given time. That figure is roughly half what the Transportation Department assumes to be the case today. An independent Harvard study one year later estimated considerably higher fatalities, with cell-phone distractions responsible for up to 2,600 traffic deaths each year.

Other research has shown that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause an accident as other divers. The likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent, the point at which most states generally consider a driver to be intoxicated.

The research also shows that hands-free devices do not eliminate risks, and may worsen them by suggesting that the behavior is safe. Dialing and screening incoming calls are by far the most dangerous aspects of driver cell-phone use.

Despite the mountain of evidence that cell-phone use is hazardous, most drivers ignore the risks or believe that it’s only unsafe behavior when others do it. Federal and state legislators have followed suit. While a handful of states require drivers to use hands-free devices and a few more have instituted a complete ban on texting while driving, not one state has banned cell-phones altogether.

It appears that talking on cell-phones is now so ingrained into the fabric of everyday life, that there are fewer and fewer places where they can’t be used. For drivers, they have taken their place alongside radios, CD players, GPS devices, and lunch-on-the-go – something we know to be a dangerous distraction but something we are prepared to live with!

Comment by paula blumenfeld, posted 7/24/2009, 9:44 PM:

dear paul-thank you for addressing this important issue. did you see the nytimes article several days ago that stated that texting while driving is more dangerous than dui?? hugs-paula
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