Distracted/cellphone-using driver risk isn’t the only thing NHTSA has covered up

According to an article in yesterday’s New York Times, “Driven to Distraction:  U.S. Withheld Data Showing Risks of Distracted Driving” NHTSA researchers in 2003 estimated that 6% of all daylight hours on USA roads were spent talking on the phone. Today, the Transportation Department estimates that figure has nearly doubled.

Cellphone use has been found by extensive research to be equivalent to driving drunk and have a 4x greater chance of crashing. Iow, up to 12% of all daylight hours on US roads are filled with drunk drivers.

The researchers estimated that 955 fatalities and 240,000 accidents in 2002 were cellphone-involved, and the  talking points memo said that NHTSA estimates 25% of crashes are caused by distracted driving.

The article quotes, Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, “We’re looking at a problem that could be as bad as drunk driving, and the government has covered it up.”

Otoh, how likely is it unlikely that 12 percent of all daylight drivers are over the legal blood alcohol limit? The problem may be far worse then than drunk driving.

Since more motorcyclists are killed in multi-vehicle crashes and distracted driving means drivers aren’t paying attention and visibility is one of the main reasons drivers cite for causing crashes with motorcyclists, this should be—but isn’t—a major issue with motorcycle rights activists with the notable exception of Bruce Arnold.

But it’s what else the article claims—that NHTSA deliberately withheld how dangerous cellphone use was from the American public—that led me to see a correlation with the languishing motorcycle accident causation study:

The  NHTSA researchers who investigated and reported on distracted driving prepared that talking points memo at the end of  a 266 page report that laid out all the research and evidence of the growing and lethal problem. That report and the memo was not released until six years later—and only because of the Freedom of Information Act request by the Center for Auto Safety.

As most if not all my readers know, the federal government set aside money for a new comprehensive motorcycle accident causation study to update the famous Hurt Study—and yet years later it’s dogged with delays and only recently has the tiny pilot study been launched that will look at less than 100 accidents.

So it was ironic, in a way, to discover that the NHTSA researchers “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.”

Instead, NHTSA, under Dr. Jeffrey Runge, “rather than commissioning a study with 10,000 drivers, handled one involving 100 cars,” It’s starting to sound awfully familiar, isn’t it?

NHTSA did the same to motorcyclists

Actually, NHTSA went farther when it came to a danger to motorcyclists and other road users. In 1997, NHTSA produced a report, DOT HS 808 570 “Relationships between vehicle Size and Fatality Risk in Model Year 1985-93 Passenger Cars and Light Trucks”.
”[A] draft of the report was peer-reviewed by a panel of experts under the auspices of the Transportation Research Boardof the National Academy of Sciences” and then “revised in response to the panel’s recommendations.” Iow, the researchers knew the results were controversial and were making sure readers knew it had been vetted by the best of the best.  If you’re looking for the hot link to that report–keep on reading as it’s exactly the point.

NHTSA researchers studied the effects on just a 100 lb. decrease in weight for SUVs, pickups and other light trucks and found that in 1993—long before SUV sales took off and so did the motorcyclist death toll—that out of the 2,217 motorcyclists, pedestrians and bicyclists hit by light trucks in 1993, the fatality rate would’ve dropped by 2.03% or a net fatality change of -45 percent. In contrast, a similar reduction in the weight of passenger cars would’ve resulted in a change of – 0.46 percent or a net change of -19 percent.

They stated, “…downsizing of light trucks would significantly reduce harm to pedestrians, motorcyclists and, above all, passenger car occupants,” with a minimal effect on increasing rollovers. It went on to say, “The benefits of truck downsizing for pedestrians and car occupants could more than offset the fatality increase for light truck occupants.” And concluded, “Continued growth in the number and weight of light trucks is likely to increase the hazard in collisions between the trucks and smaller road users (cars, motorcyclists, bicyclists and pedestrians), while a reduction in the weight of the trucks is likely to reduce harm in such collisions.”

Iow, 12 years ago NHTSA found light truck vehicles (LTVs) are extremely dangerous to other road users and were so sure of it that they didn’t recommend a larger study but a reduction in weight of a mere 100 lbs. NHTSA did nothing about this.

Further research confirmed this finding. A 2002 Dynamic Research, Inc. study, “An Assessment Of The Effects Of Vehicle Weight On Fatality Risk In Model Year 1985-98 Passenger Cars And 1985-97 Light Trucks Volume I: Executive Summary DRI-TR-02-02” examined 1999 fatality statistics and confirmed the 1997 NHTSA document.

A year later, in 2003, Dr. Michelle J. White, professor of economics at the University of San Diego, published the paper, “The Arms Race” on American Roads: The Effect of SUV’s and Pickup Trucks on Traffic Safety”. In it she concluded, “For each one million light trucks that replace cars, between 34 and 93 additional car occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists or motorcyclists are killed per year and the value of the lives lost is between $242 and 652 million per year.”  She went on to say that for each fatal crash the occupants of light truck vehicles themselves avoid, “at least 4.3 additional fatal crashes involving other occur. Iow, the drivers of SUVs make others pay for their selfish self-interest at an unconsciously high price.

Her study found that if a light truck hits a motorcyclist, specifically, the probability of dying rose by 56 percent but the probability of only being seriously injured rose to 26%. While pedestrians/bicyclists’ probabilities also rose (45% fatality, 11% serious injury), motorcyclists, then, are particularly at risk from LTVs.

But just as NHTSA had ignored its own study, it continued to ignore further studies. And, rather than weight decreasing, the weight of  SUVs, at least, increased: For example, in 1993 Ford Explorer’s curb weight was 3, 679 lbs. In 2009, the Expedition weighs 5,578 lbs—a weight increase of 52%.

And NHTSA ignored easily accessible information such as the survey by Roy Morgan Research one of over 24,000 SUV drivers. While “[L]arge 4WD” owners were determined survey to be such things that don’t necessarily affect driving such as male SUV drivers are  more likely to be overweight and  more likely to prefer beer and femial SUV drivers are more materialistic and more likely to say, “I was born to shop.”

It also found that they were: more aggressive; less tolerant; more likely to suffer road rage; less charitable; more likely to use force to get their way—and much more importantly—more likely to be involved in accidents that kill or maim people in other vehicles.

It also ignored research, such as this study that found that “Evidence suggests that because [SUV owners] sit higher, drivers of SUVs (and vans and pickups) are less able to judge speed accurately.”

While SUVs bloated like a fat lady with PMS—with a huge financial boon to the American auto industry, the motorcyclist death toll soared—and particularly in terms of LTV collisions.

In 1994 (the earliest date available), FARS reports 376 fatal LTV/motorcycle crashes. In 2006, FARS reported 1,083 fatal LTV/motorcycle crashes—a 188% increase. Meanwhile, passenger car/motorcycle fatalities went from 595 to 943—a 58% increase.

And, in another parallel to the Distracted Driver research, the original NHTSA document disappeared from the Internet: In 2004 (when I found it on line and printed it out) this document could be easily found on the Internet, today, a Google search leads one to Summaries of Published Evaluation Reports–and it’s one of a handful of NHTSA documents that are not accessible through a hot link. Curiously, it’s the only one without a hot link that does not include the information it has been superceded by a later report. The url that worked in 2004 no longer works. It is, though, cited in numerous other papers. However, you can find the summary of the peer review—which criticizes the report before­ it was changed in response to the review—here http://onlinepubs.trb.org/Onlinepubs/reports/letrept.html

Van and SUV drivers more likely to be on the cell phone than other drivers

Not only that—and to tie it back into the NYT’s articles, NHTSA’s 2001 DOT HS 809 293 reveals it also knew that Van and SUV drivers were more likely (4.8) to use cell phones while driving than passenger car drivers (2.6). Interestingly, it also found that particularly female rather than male and rural rather than urban Van and SUV drivers were more likely to use their cellphones while driving than female or urban passenger car drivers. Equally interesting–it found pickup drivers were less likely to use cellphones (1.9).

Iow, NHTSA hasn’t just ignored the cellphone issue that literally impacts so many motorcyclists’ lives—it’s the LTV issue as well–and the LTV owner talking on his or her cellphone issue. So why would NHTSA ignore so much research in various ways that have lethal consequences to the most vulnerable of road users—motorcyclists, pedestrians and bicyclists?

Fear of fiscal retaliation

According to the NYT, NHTSA deep-sixed the report because of fears that stakeholders would be upset at the findings—and any subsequent laws against cellphone use that may result—and that would result in loss of appropriations.

“Those stakeholders, Dr. Runge said, were the House Appropriations Committee and groups that might influence it, notably voters who multitask while driving and, to a much smaller degree, the cellphone industry.”

The article went on to say, “Mr. Monk and Mike Goodman, a division head at the safety agency who led the research project, theorize that the agency might have felt pressure from the cellphone industry. Mr. Goodman said the industry frequently checked in with him about the project and his progress. (He said the industry knew about the research because he had worked with it to gather some data).”

“Can you hear me now?” Money talks–but we get the dead zone

That wouldn’t surprise us; powerful interests are powerful and there is nowhere in America that money speaks louder than in Washington. And the telecommunications sure knows how to talk Washingtonian: AT&T tops opensecrets.org’s

http://www.opensecrets.org/orgs/list.php All-Time Donors List. It’s spent over $43 million in lobbying from 1989-2008. The Communications Workers of America is no. 12 and Verizon comes in at 32—just behind the AFL-CIO and beating out such heavy-hitters as FedEx, Lockheed Martin, General Electric and the NRA. The Cellular Telecom & Internet Association—which is the wireless/Internet industry’s MIC—spent $1,790,000 million last year alone on lobbying and spent an additional $395,000 on several other lobbying firms.

And then there’s the campaign contributions—AT&T donated almost $4.5 million, Verizon $2.5 million,  the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn $1.5 million, Qwest just over $1 million—and that’s just some of them and that’s just the contributions to federal Congressional candidates and doesn’t count Presidential elections (overall, the industry gave Obama almost a million, Clinton over half a million and poor John McCain just over a third of a million—but then Democratic candidates for Congress get, by far, much more money than Republican ones).

In a similar way, LTVs were already becoming a juggernaut in the economy back in 1997: LTV registration had doubled from 1985-1997, passenger car population had remained relatively stable but LTV registration had doubled. For example, in 1994 passenger cars were 67% and LTVs were 18%. of all registered vehicles.

In 2006, passenger car registration had dropped to 55% (-27%) and LTVs had become 31% of all vehicles registered (+73%). SUV registration, alone, had gone up 400% since 1994.

Meanwhile, the automobile industry was spending up to $71 million a year in lobbying alone and giving up to $21 million to candidates (in ’04—in ’08 it dropped to about $18 million).

Even if MRF and AMA were lobbying on these issues, there’s no way they could even come close in spending for political influence.

Vox populi are the ones doing the talking—and voting

But, as Runge said, there’s an awful lot of voters with cellphones in their hands. According to CTIA, 82.4% of Americans have some kind of cellphone plan. And it’s the voice of the people who are talking on the phones while driving.

And, of course, there’s those 74,797,241 LTV owners.  And that alone is a powerful voting block.  Put the two together–the chatty Van and SUV owners–who also tend to be married, adults 25-54 48% male and 52% female, college educated, professional/managerial and affluent (HHI $40k+). Iow, the kind of people who tend to give campaign donations.

It’s very believable, then, that pressure was exerted and fears were created and NHTSA succumbed.

The motorcycle industry has acted similarly when it comes to NHTSA research

That the motorcycle industry, in particular, influences NHTSA in a similar way is no stretch at all:

As we know, Tim Buche said that the new accident causation study would be done “over his dead body”. We also know the motorcycle manufacturers have put up most of the money for the new accident causation study—but that money came with stipulations and it’s unknown if we now what all of them are. But one of those stipulations we do know is that that no conclusions nor recommendations be drawn at the end of the study by those that do it.

Plausible deniability

The NYT’s article points out, “…[Goodman] could offer no proof of the industry’s influence. Mr. Flaherty said he was not contacted or influenced by the industry.”

Nor can anyone prove that the automobile industry pressured NHTSA nor can riders  prove that the motorcycle industry is preventing the accident causation study from moving forward and influencing the design of the study to protect its self-interest over our well-being.

But the facts remain: NHTSA has long known that more motorcyclists and other vulnerable road users would die if LTVs even remained at their 1993 weights let alone got heavier. And it knew that more people would die if cellphones were used while driving. And it knew that SUV and van drivers talking on the phone weren’t just equivalent to the ordinary drunk–they were extremely care-less and careless drivers driving every day at all hours as if they were four sheets to the wind drunk.  Iow, NHTSA has time and time again valued the lives of LTV owners over the lives of riders.

And why? So their appropriations are safe, which means their jobs are safe while riders suffer and die.

And for what? So they can do a little good? Well, it seems like they’re doing precious little good. But there are always those who don’t care what damage they do as long as their self-interest is served. That shouldn’t surprise us either. Then again, it doesn’t mean we should continue to let those more concerned with their jobs than our lives continue to ignore what raises our risk.

NHTSA responded by dedicating itself to safety—not the safety of vulnerable road users—and specifically motorcyclists—but the safety of those who spend the most lobbying and give the most to campaigns.

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4 Comments on “Distracted/cellphone-using driver risk isn’t the only thing NHTSA has covered up”

  1. anonymous Says:

    While the blood of those who drive Porshes and Escalades may be both rare and costly, that of motorcyclists is both plentiful and cheap. Just ask the partnership of the NHTSA and the MSF-MIC and they will give a spot quote. Last time I checked the “spot market” it was about 2 bits a quart for motorcyclist blood and the organ donations were a “free bonus”.

  2. wmoon Says:

    I don’t think that MIC/MSF has anything to do with either cellphone/distracted drivers or the danger LTVs pose for vulnerable road users. I think it’s entirely about the influence money can buy and people who are more concerned about keeping the status quo–i.e., their jobs. But NHTSA is hardly the only place that happens–there’s people who will bend over and take it even if they know what’s being done is wrong in every profession.

  3. FRE Says:

    About a year ago, I attempted to get data from the NHTSA that ranked states by accident rate. They told me that they don’t provide that information since if they did, the states might no longer provide the NHTSA with accident statistics. It was, however, possible for me to get that information from the raw statistics, although it was time consuming.

    I mention this to show that the NHTSA is influenced by outside forces.

  4. SPC Says:

    I agree, sadly, with the comment made by ‘anonymous’.

    A friend of mine is in the process of burying her beloved husband, who was killed Monday, Oct. 12, 2009.

    A 19-year-old, who was too busy texting on her cell phone to apparently check for oncoming traffic, cut in front of my friend while he was on his way to work.

    This man had more than 30 years of motorcycle driving experience, and was very conscientious about safety. Don’t know how long the kid’s been at it.


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