U.S. Withheld Data on Driving Distractions - WBOC-TV 16, Delmarvas News Leader, FOX 21 -

Reported by Brie Jackson

U.S. Withheld Data on Driving Distractions

Updated: July 22, 2009 07:55 AM EDT

WASHINGTON-  A new report claims the U.S. withheld important information about distracted drivers. A consumer advocate group says the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration shelved a 2002 study about the dangers of using cell phones on the road.

Researchers say drivers distracted by cell phones caused nearly 1,000 fatalities and 240,000 accidents nationwide in 2002. Researchers found that driving while talking on your cell phone can increase the risk of an accident by three or four times. Consumer groups say releasing the information, years ago, could have saved lives.

Two consumer groups, Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen, say the government kept the information private and misled the public in believing that driving hands-free is safe.

"The idea that the federal government can withhold important safety data and its research on public safety is really disasterous," said Margaret Kwoka, an attorney for Public Citizen.

The consumer groups filed a lawsuit to have the information released, claiming there were political reasons why the NHTSA withheld the 2002 findings. Reasons included pressure from the wireless industry, which has spent $35 million lobbying Congress, and pressure from lawmakers. Back in 2002, many states were just starting to create distracted driving laws. Some people in Congress warned the highway traffic agency not to lobby states over the safety issue or risk billions of dollars in funding.

The Department of Transportation says it is deeply concerned that drivers are taking their focus off the road to send text messages or use their cell phone. The government estimates one in 10 drivers talks on a cell phone. Most researchers say it is the conversation, not holding a phone, which has motorists distracted. Consumer groups are pushing for lawmakers to ban drivers' phone use all together. Researchers say driver distraction contributes to about 25 percent of all police-reported traffic crashes in 2002. The newly released data says the risk of talking while behind the wheel is almost equal to drunk driving.

Right now, the state of Maryland prohibits people under the age of 18 from using a cell-phone while driving that includes hands free devices. Starting in October, all Maryland drivers will be banned from writing, reading or sending text messages while operating a motor vehicle.

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