When politics trumps public safety

Study of "distracted driving" was derailed by political concerns

Years from now an announcement being made today may be looked upon as a watershed event in the eventual eradication of a growing roadway menace: driving while under the distraction of a cell phone.

The shame is that it could have happened years earlier.

As reported by the New York Times yesterday:

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.

They sought the study based on evidence that such multitasking was a serious and growing threat on America’s roadways.

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.

On Tuesday, the full body of research is being made public for the first time by two consumer advocacy groups, which filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit for the documents. The Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen provided a copy to The New York Times, which is publishing the documents on its Web site.

While it's not surprising that political considerations were put ahead of science and public safety, the story is nonetheless difficult to digest given how ubiquitous phone use while driving has become.

The good news is that lawmakers are finally catching on and catching up.

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