Transportation Dept withheld documents detailing cell phone hazards

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Texting or even talking on a cell phone while driving increases the risk of a deadly accident, according to analysis and literature reviews by the Transportation Department conducted since 2003.  Hands-free handsets don’t eliminate the risk.

But it took a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit by watchdog groups Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety for the public to get a look at of hundreds of pages of agency internal documents, made public today by the groups and the New York Times.

Agency staff had held tight to the documents “in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress,” reported the Times. One example: a 2003 internal memorandum warning states that it was dangerous for people to use wireless devices, for talking or texting, while driving. The memo was withheld, charges Dr. Jeffrey Runge, then head of the head of the highway safety agency, because of concerns it would anger Congressional appropriations committee members. Some in Congress had warned the agency not to lobby states.

“People died in crashes because the government withheld this information. 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,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, in a press statement today.

Ditlow  FOIAed the government after the Los Angeles Times published a 2008 story mentioning existence of the Transportation Department research. Mother Jones also later published a series on the dangers of cell phone use while driving.

The Transportation Department initially denied the FOIA request, claiming an exemption that allows agencies to withhold “deliberative documents” that lead up to a policy decision. The groups filed their lawsuit in December, 2008 arguing that the data were not deliberative, but rather were factual summaries and statements. The agency then turned over the documents.

This is an admirable example of media and citizen watchdogging to hold the government accountable. But what’s wrong with the picture? It took not just a FOIA request, but a FOIA lawsuit, before this information crucial to public safety became a matter of public information. The original request was denied during the Bush Administration; the lawsuit resolved under the ObamaAdministration. So perhaps this reversal points to Obama’s pledge to open up FOIA. However, as we’ve reported over at Real Time Investigations, under the current administration the FOIA process still leaves much to be desired.

Right now, as I write this, what other agencies are withholding information  that could be saving lives or preventing accidents and injuries? Is the Food and Drug Administration telling us all we need to know about food safety? Is the Environmental Protection Agency giving us an accurate idea of what pollutants we are breathing?  Is the Consumer Product Safety Commission letting us know all we should about dangerous t0ys and products? I’m certain the answer is a flat out “no.” That’s why we need to give digging, keep watchdogging, and advocate that government agencies open up and tell us what they do, and don’t, know.

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  • It looks like NHTSA may be getting ready to regulate the use of cell phones in cars, following other federal regulators in demonstrating that it is willing to flex its regulatory muscles. In today’s political and regulatory environment, cell phone companies need to read the writing on the wall and move beyond simply denying that there is a problem with cell phone use behind the wheel. Instead, they should engage in the conversation and make sure they have a seat at the table when new regulations are written. I wrote more on this topic at BulletproofBlog.com: http://www.bulletproofblog.com/2009/07/21/cell-phones-and-driving-a-cold-reception-likely-on-capitol-hill/

  • Lyle Mitchell

    Yet again we see the gaping gap between rhetoric and reality. Thanks for focusing on the real issue here the need to follow through with a lawsuit on the original FOIA request. It takes a lot of time and money to file a lawsuit after getting nowhere with original FOIA request. I wonder how many people filing FOIA’s get the brush off and can’t pursue further because of these extra costs? I also wonder if exposing the risks of driving and texting will change public habits particularly when mobile texting will become an even bigger phenomena in the future and is obviously very addictive. The companies making money from these devices obviously have an interest in keeping the facts of the dangers hidden. Don’t we wish it wasn’t so?