While driving on the highways in the New York metropolitan area, have you noticed that when the overhead highway electronic traffic signs have no traffic jams to report, they warn that only hands-free devices can legally be used? While happy to not have to deal with a traffic jam, who knew that this seemingly friendly advice was false – that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) withheld data showing 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 that the government has known of the hands-free risk since 2003. The research showed that the problem is the conversation itself, not the device used to hear it, according to a Public Citizen press release. The conversation causes inattention blindness, a cognitive state that slows a drivers reaction time and limits his or her ability to detect changes in road conditions.
Studies say that drivers using phones are four times as likely to cause a crash as other drivers, and the likelihood that they will crash is equal to that of someone with a .08 percent blood alcohol level, the point at which drivers are generally considered intoxicated. It has been estimated that in 2002 cell phone using drivers caused 955 fatalities and 240, 000 accidents.
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. 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. 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.
By keeping this information secret from the public for the past six years, the government has endangered many lives. Public Citizen quotes: 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 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. This is presumably bad news for Bluetooth users.
The Center also is asking NHTSA to support state programs designed to limit use of cell phones whether hands-free or handheld by drivers. Adding to the gall are suggestions that the NHTSA withheld the research findings to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, then the head of the highway safety agency, said 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. As aptly asked today by The New York Times in an editorial: Since when did trying to save lives constitute lobbying?
The lawyers at Levine & Slavit have decades of experience handling personal injury claims including those involving auto accidents. For over 50 years spanning 3 generations, we have obtained results for satisfied clients. We have offices in Manhattan and Long Island, handling cases in New York City, the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and surrounding areas.