Cellphone Dangers: So What Else Is Uncle Sam Hiding?

1131636_no_cellsAccording to The New York Times, in 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration funded a study assessing the safety risks associated with hand-held and hands-free cellphone use while driving.  The study found that hands-free cell phone use is equally as dangerous as hand-held cellphone use:  it is so dangerous that it impairs your judgment in the same way that driving drunk does.  The study stayed within the agency’s confines until two days ago, a result that we can attribute to the tenaciousness of two consumer advocacy groups and their FOIA litigation.

So why did the agency keep the report to itself?  Although the agency wanted to publish its findings to warn Governors not to give a pass to hands-free laws and to educate the public about the dangers of hands-free and hand-held cellphone use while driving, the former head of the agency explained that he was urged to withhold the research to avoid antagonizing members of Congress.  Apparently, “advisers upstairs” warned the agency head that the research would create enemies among important stakeholders, such as the House Appropriations Committee and groups that might influence it, notably voters who multitask while driving and, to a lesser degree, the cellphone industry.  Sprinkle a little bit of capture along with a dash of public opinion and viola:  federal dollars spent terrifying agency officials who could not warn the public despite their deep desire to do so.

This leads to the next question.  What else haven’t agencies told the public on the grounds that neither the public nor interest groups really want to hear about certain hazards?  What kind of information do we want to hide from ourselves in order to satisfy our fool-hardy immediate desires?  (I hate to admit but I would be so sad to learn that coffee poses untenable safety risks.)  One imagines that is precisely how the public once felt about cigarettes and even still about alcohol — the image of John Hamm smoking cigarettes so lovingly on Mad Men comes to mind here.  All of this may also speak to our irrationality: we fear unlikely events, such as terror attacks, and not the most likely ones, such as getting into a car accident because we are distracted by a cell phone conversation.  We multi-task and like it, gosh darn, and nothing will happen to me anyway.

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2 Responses

  1. What constitutes an “untenable” risk? Because we ARE going to be taking some kind of risks, risks are unavoidable. And frequently risks are associated with benefits, making them worth taking.

    A decade ago, cellphone use in cars was essentially negligible, today it’s routine. How much has this pushed up the death toll on our roads? Based on this chart,

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_motor_vehicle_deaths_in_U.S._by_year

    Not at all.

    If using a cellphone is as dangerous as driving drunk, apparently we’ve been misled about how dangerous driving drunk really is.

  2. waldo says:

    Interesting story. There’s only one problem with it. I read about the study’s conclusions in newspapers years ago. Use Google to confirm this statement.

    BTW I’m against the use of any cell phone (hands-free included) while driving.