The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) woke up to a New York Times hatchet job. “In 2003, researchers at a federal agency proposed a long-term study of 10,000 drivers to assess the safety risk posed by cellphone use behind the wheel,” the NYT begins, without specifying who, what, when, where or how. But we do get a general sort of why: “They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.” And then, da da DA! “But such an ambitious study never happened. And the researchers’ agency, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, decided not to make public hundreds of pages of research and warnings about the use of phones by drivers — in part, officials say, because of concerns about angering Congress.” Dive! Dive! Dive!
So, here’s the “secret” preliminary data (all 266 pages of it). Now, a bit further down the Times article, we get the smoking gun. Allegedly.
Dr. Jeffrey Runge, then the head of the highway safety agency, said he grudgingly decided not to publish the draft letter [to Transportation Secretary Norman Minetta “warning states that hands-free laws might not solve” the cell phone distracted driving problem] because of larger political considerations.
At the time, Congress had warned the agency not to use its research to lobby states. Dr. 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 Dr. Runge, several staff members with the highway safety agency and John Flaherty, Mr. Mineta’s chief of staff.
Mr. Flaherty recalls that the group decided not to publish the research because the data was too inconclusive.
Who are these “transit officials” of which Dr. Runge speaks? And why are we to believe Dr. R’s characterization of events when Mineta’s main man Flaherty says the data was withheld due to its quality?
He recalled that Dr. Runge “indicated that the data was incomplete and there was going to be more research coming.”
He recalled summing up his position as, the agency “should make a decision as to whether they wanted to wait for more data.”
But Dr. Runge recalled feeling that 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 Dr. Runge, whose staff spent months preparing a binder of materials for their presentation.
DOT telling NHTSA not to play politics? Sounds sensible to me. Now, can the NYT backpedal? Sure!
The highway safety agency, rather than commissioning a study with 10,000 drivers, handled one involving 100 cars. That study, done with the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, placed cameras inside cars to monitor drivers for more than a year . . .
Not all the research went unpublished. The safety agency put on its Web site an annotated bibliography of more than 150 scientific articles [here] that showed how a cellphone conversation while driving taxes the brain’s processing power. But the bibliography included only a list of the articles, not the one-page summaries of each one written by the researchers.
“It became almost laughable,” Mr. Monk told the Times. “What they wound up finally publishing was a stripped-out summary.”
It’s a conspiracy! Or not.
Mr. Monk and Mike Goodman, a division head at the safety agency who led the research project, theorize that the agency might have felt pressure from the cellphone industry. Mr. Goodman said the industry frequently checked in with him about the project and his progress. (He said the industry knew about the research because he had worked with it to gather some data).
But he could offer no proof of the industry’s influence. Mr. Flaherty said he was not contacted or influenced by the industry.
In summary, then, we now know the NHTSA is not in the business of releasing preliminary data, which is open to misinterpretation. In fact, suggesting that agency torpedoed a study of 10k drivers because they don’t care about driver safety, or care too much about congressional oversight, is a slur against the NHTSA’s history of protecting American motorists and calling it like they see it.
At least the NYT ends (as do we) with a quote from the Department of Transportation’s (DOT) Rae Tyson, the spokesman who’s helped us investigate potential fraud re: the fed’s “Cash for Clunkers” program.
Rae Tyson . . . said [the DOT] did not, and would not, publish the researchers’ fatality estimates because they were not definitive enough.
He said the other research was compiled as background material for the agency, not for the public.
“There is no report to publish,” he said.