First, let me say I'm glad you weren't killed or seriously hurt, and this girl is a fucking idiot to put her own life, much less yours, at risk.
I also wanted to say how apt this is, since they released information on driving while distracted, and the 25% or more accidents caused this way, which Congress tried to pressure the safety board into hiding from the public.
In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term of study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cell phone use behind the wheel.
They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America's roadways.
But the agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, did not commission such a study — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.
And senior government officials decided not to make public hundreds of pages of the NHTSA's research that had led to that recommendation, as well as other draft policies to curtail the use of phones by drivers.
The full body of research is being made public for the first time today by two consumer advocacy groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents. The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen provided a copy to the New York Times, which is publishing the documents on its Web site.
In interviews, the officials who withheld the research offered their fullest explanation to date.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, former head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said he was urged to withhold the research to avoid angering members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states.
Critics say that rationale and the failure of the Transportation Department, which oversees the highway agency, to pursue distracted driving has cost lives and allowed to blossom a culture of behind-the-wheel multitasking.
"We're looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up," said Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety.
The group petitioned for the information after the Los Angeles Times wrote about the research last year.
The highway safety researchers estimated cell phone use by drivers caused about 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002.
The researchers also shelved a draft letter they had prepared for Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta to send; the letter warned states that hands-free laws might not solve the problem.
That letter said hands-free headsets did not eliminate the serious accident risk. The reason is that a cell phone conversation itself, not just holding the phone, diminishes focus on the road, studies showed.
The research mirrors other studies about the dangers of multitasking behind the wheel. Research shows that motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and they are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood-alcohol content.
The three-person research team based the fatality and accident estimates on studies that quantified the risks of distracted driving, and an assumption that 6 percent of drivers were talking on the phone at a given time. That figure is roughly half what the Transportation Department assumes to be the case now.
More-precise data does not exist because most police forces have not collected long-term data connecting cell phones to accidents. That is why the researchers called for the broader study with 10,000 or more drivers.
"We nevertheless have concluded the use of cell phones while driving has contributed to an increasing number of crashes, injuries and fatalities," according to a talking points memo the researchers compiled in July 2003.
It added, "We therefore recommend that the drivers not use wireless communication devices, including text messaging systems, when driving, except in an emergency."
Runge, then the head of the NHTSA, said he grudgingly decided not to publish the Mineta letter and policy recommendation because of political considerations.
At the time, Congress had warned the agency not to use its research to lobby states. Runge said transit officials told him he could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing if Congress perceived the agency had crossed the line into lobbying.
The fate of the research was discussed during a high-level meeting at the transportation secretary's office. The meeting included Runge, several staff members with the highway safety agency and John Flaherty, Mineta's chief of staff.
Flaherty recalls the group decided not to publish the research because the data was too inconclusive. He recalled that Runge "indicated that the data was incomplete and there was going to be more research coming."
But Runge recalled feeling the issue was dire and needed public attention. "I really wanted to send a letter to governors telling them not to give a pass to hands-free laws," said Runge, whose staff spent months preparing materials for their presentation.
His broader goal, he said, was to educate people about the dangers of distracted driving.
But "my advisers upstairs said we should not poke a finger in the eye of the appropriations committee," he recalled.
He said Flaherty asked him: "Do we have enough evidence right now to not create enemies among all the stakeholders?"
Those stakeholders, Runge said, were the House Appropriations Committee and groups that might influence it, notably voters who multitask while driving and, to a much smaller degree, the cell phone industry.
For his part, Mineta, who left as transportation secretary in 2006, said he was unaware of the meeting.
Mineta was always a douche, IMO. More evidence we should tar and feather the asshats in Congress and stab them with pitchforks.