Gov't Wanted Total Cell Phone Ban For Drivers, Report Reveals

We've long heard about the dangers of using your cell phone while driving. Chatting or texting behind the wheel could be as bad as drunken driving, some studies have suggested. Now, a new report reveals America's federal transportation safety agency wanted a total ban on all cell phone use for drivers -- including the use of hands-free headsets -- because of the risk.

Cell Phone Safety Recommendation

The report, created by the National Highway Transportation and Safety Administration, was actually written in 2002 but kept under wraps until now. Two public interest groups were able to get ahold of the document as a result of a lawsuit citing the Freedom of Information Act. They released it publicly on Tuesday.

In the report, the NHTSA recommends that "drivers do not use [cell phone] devices when driving, except in an emergency." As for the use of hands-free headsets, which some states currently require for in-car cell phone use, the group is quick to knock their safety down; the headsets, the NHTSA says, create as much of a crash risk as the hand-held devices do.

"We are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of handheld cell phones while driving may not be effective in improving highway safety since it will not address the problem," the report states. "In fact, such legislation may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving."

Study Suppressed

The reasons behind the recommendations are logical enough: The NHTSA's data showed that cell phone use by drivers was responsible for 240,000 accidents and 955 deaths nationwide in 2002. It also suggested hands-free and handheld devices caused comparable "cognitive distraction" that negatively affected driving ability. Why, then, did none of this come to light until now? That's where things seem to get messy.

The then-head of the NHTSA tells The New York Times he held back from releasing the recommendations because of "larger political considerations," saying that lawmakers might have felt the agency had "crossed the line into lobbying." As a result, The Times reports, the NHTSA feared billions of dollars of federal funding could have been jeopardized.

If anything, the risks now may be more extreme than they were at the time of the NHTSA's original study, too: The number of Americans with cell phone service has shot from about half of the population in 2002 to a staggering 87 percent of it now, according to measurements from a nonprofit wireless industry association.

The Times has posted the NHTSA's entire 266-page study online for public viewing.

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.

(Image credit: Ed Brown via Wikimedia Commons)

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