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Government Still Taking Hands-Off Approach to Cell Phoning While Driving

4:42 PM EDT on July 21, 2009

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) was prepared six years ago to seek broad limits on cell phone use by drivers -- with or without a hands-free device -- but shelved its plans for fear of alienating Congress and chat-loving voters, the New York Times reported today.


The story suggests that senior U.S. DOT officials may have played politics with safety data, although no hard evidence of influence by the cell phone or auto industries was uncovered.

Perhaps the most newsworthy element of the story, then, is its minor mention of NHTSA's "current policy ... that people should not use cell phones while driving."

This is true, albeit buried in an obscure section of the agency's website:

Q. Is it safe to use hands-free (headset, speakerphone, or other device) cell phones while driving?

A. The available research indicates that whether it is a hands-free orhand-held cell phone, the cognitive distraction is significant enoughto degrade a driver’s performance.  This can cause a driver to miss keyvisual and audio cues needed to avoid a crash.

It appears that while NHTSA declines to release the findings on distracted driving that it first got in 2003, the agency is officially (and quietly) warning that cell phone use of any kind increases the risk of a crash.

This fact was also acknowledged by NHTSA in response to a 2006 study that echoed the agency's internal conclusions on the comparable dangers of driving while phoning and drunk driving.

So why is NHTSA not taking stronger action to curb cell phone use of any kind by drivers? One answer may lie in the current vacancy at the agency's helm.

NHTSA is being run by an acting administrator, Ron Medford, after Charles Hurley withdrew his presidential nomination in May. By contrast, National Transportation Safety Board chief-in-waiting Deborah Hersman responded to the recent Boston trolley crash with a strong warning that "you should not be talking on your cell phone, texting, or operating a wireless device while you are operating a vehicle."

The White House has yet to announce a new nominee to lead NHTSA, but whomever is chosen will have a chance to broadcast its hush-hush position on cell phone use more loudly.

The Center for Auto Safety, which joined Public Citizen in securing the release of the six-year-old agency data, is petitioning the agency for a new crackdown on the use of communication devices by drivers.

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