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Gerry McGill
Gerry McGill
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NHTSA fears angering Congress; Hides study on cell phones and driving.

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Everyone knows that drinking and driving is bad. We are bombarded on a daily basis with public service announcements to that effect. Our children take drivers education classes in which they watch films with titles like “Blood on the Highways!!!” If we actually drive after drinking we can expect to be caught and lose our drivers licenses and possibly go to jail. If we get in an accident and someone is killed, we will be charged with vehicular manslaughter. So, with all this, surely it is obvious that drinking and driving is the worst combination ever, right? Wrong. It now appears the driving while texting is more dangerous than driving while intoxicated.

Reports have begun to surface that in 2003 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) suppressed research showing the tremendous danger of using a cell phone while driving. According to the former head of the NHTSA, the report was suppressed in order to “avoid antagonizing members of Congress.” According to their website, the mission of the NHTSA is to “Save lives, prevent injuries, [and] reduce vehicle-related crashes.” Unless of course, that mission results in “antagonizing members of Congress.”

The NHTSA report finds that drivers talking on a phone are four times more likely to crash than other drivers. This is the same likelihood of causing an accident as a driver with a blood alcohol content (BAC) of .08. The study also shows that the problem is not the physical manipulation of the device. In other words, drivers talking on a hands-free device are no safer than those holding the phone. This sounds bad enough, and yet a 2006 study from the University of Utah found that in simulators, cell phone users actually caused more accidents than drunken drivers.

Neither of these studies examined texting while driving, merely talking. However, common sense suggests that if the mere act of using a phone while driving is dangerous, then using it while not looking at the road will be even more so. And, in recent months the nation has begun to reap the fruits of the NHTSA’s timidity. There have been a number of high profile public accidents involving texting. Since September 2008, more than 25 people have been killed, and nearly 200 injured in a train accident where the operators were texting. Early in June, a federal employee in California somehow failed to see an enormous Department of Transportation maintenance truck, at least until he slammed into it at full speed. The cause? The driver was talking on his cell phone, in violation of California law.

If this recitation of facts has not been disquieting enough, consider another conclusion from the Utah study. At any given time, the number of drunk drivers on the road is quite small, particularly during the day. Just look out of your car window during today’s commute home and see how many folks are chatting away on their phones, or even texting. My own, informal, research suggests that at least half of drivers are blithely chatting away in what are, I’m sure, extremely important phone calls. Perhaps they are all trauma surgeons responding to emergency pages, or ambassadors to foreign nations, or perhaps they are all the guy who holds the nuclear codes for the president. They can’t possibly be risking their lives and the lives of others in order to share the details of the sandwich they ate for lunch, or because they can’t wait fifteen minutes to schedule a haircut.

Here is the bottom line, folks. Talking on a cell phone is at least as dangerous as driving drunk. Texting is worse. If you do it you are endangering those around you. In a word, it is negligent. So, let’s stop doing it.Just once, let’s all try and do the right thing because it is right. If however, doing the right thing for the right reason just doesn’t make it for you, consider how you will feel explaining to the grieving relatives of the people you just killed that you couldn’t pass up the opportunity to win free concert tickets. If even that is not enough, imagine sitting in a courtroom someday, explaining it to a jury.