The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has withheld information since 2003 that shows drivers using hands-free headsets are just as likely to be involved in traffic accidents as drivers using a handheld device, according to records obtained by the consumer advocacy groups Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety. While the NHTSA sat on the data for six years, cities and states across the country passed laws and ordinances requiring drivers to use hands-free phones in the belief that those devices were safer.
"People died in crashes because the government withheld this information," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said in a statement. "States passed laws and took action to restrict only handheld cell phone use assuming hands-free cell phones use was safe. The studies NHTSA concealed showed that all cell phone use is as hazardous as drinking and driving."
The Center for Auto Safety obtained the NHTSA records after filing a 2008 Freedom of Information Act. The NHTSA refused to provide the results of its studies, but the Center for Auto Safety, represented by Public Citizen, ulitmately prevailed in the legal battle.
Among the documents the NHTSA was forced to reveal was a 2002 draft letter researchers had prepared for then-Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta to send to governors warning them that hands-free laws might not solve the problem of increasing wrecks caused by cell phone use. The letter was never sent.
"A significant body of research worldwide indicates that both handheld and hands-free cell phones increase the risk of a crash," the letter states. "Indeed, research has demonstrated that there is little, if any difference between the use of handheld and hands-free phones in contributing to the risk of driving while distracted."
The letter also stated: "We are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of handheld cell phones while driving will not be effective since it will not address the problem. In fact, such legislation may erroneously imply that that hands-free phones are safe to use while driving."
Armed with the new data, the Center for Auto Safety said it is petitioning the NHTSA to restrict the availability of two-way communication features through in-vehicle systems such as OnStar. The group also is asking the NHTSA to support state programs designed to limit the use of cell phones - whether hands-free or handheld - by drivers.
"OnStar radio commercials airing right now promote OnStar's ability to function like a hands-free cell phone, enabling drivers to place a phone call while keeping 'their hands on the wheel and eyes on the road,'" Ditlow and longtime consumer advocate Ralph Nader wrote in a May 15 letter to the presidents of GM and OnStar. "Even more troubling in one commercial is the inclusion of an actual OnStar user, who proudly admits that she uses the hands-free calling service and states that, 'I don't believe in cell phones when I'm driving, so this is my salvation.'"
According to studies conducted in 2001 and 2003 by the University of Utah, driving while talking on a hands-free cell phone is just as dangerous as driving while talking on a hand-held cell phone because the two-way conversation -- not the task of holding the phone -- causes a cognitive distraction. This distraction induces an "inattention blindness" that inhibits drivers' abilities to detect changes in the road condition.
The studies did not find similar distractions with one-way communications, such as when a driver is listening to the radio or to a conversation between others.