The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) put politics above public safety in 2003 when it suppressed research estimating that cell phone use—both phone calls and text messaging—while driving had caused hundreds of thousands of car accidents and hundreds of crash-related deaths the previous year, the New York Times reports. This information came to light today when two Washington, D.C., consumer advocacy groups—Public Safety and the Ralph Nader-founded Center for Auto Safety—won their Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to make public the some 250 pages of research compiled in 2003.

Based on their research, a team of NHTSA workers estimated that cell phone use by drivers caused 955 fatalities and about 240,000 accidents in 2002.  [The documents can be found on the Times Web site.] Other research reinforces the NHTSA's findings: motorists talking on a phone are four times as likely to crash as other drivers, and they are as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content.

Congress discouraged the NHTSA from releasing the information (even threatening to withhold funding), warning the agency to "stick to its mission of gathering safety data," NHTSA officials told the Times. The legislators were reportedly concerned that the agency would take its research directly to the states in an attempt to encourage them to pass laws against cell phone use while driving.

The dangers of cell phone use (particularly texting) aren't limited to cars. In May, a 24-year-old Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) trolley operator injured 49 people after crashing into another trolley while sending a text message to his girlfriend. Last September, 25 people were killed and 125 injured after a commuter train in California crashed after the engineer was sending and receiving text messages.

This isn't the first time the NHTSA and Center for Auto Safety have locked horns on this issue. The NHTSA last year successfully shot down a Center for Auto Safety petition asking the agency to require that any vehicle with integrated personal communication systems—including cell phones and text messaging systems—be rendered inoperative when the vehicle is in motion. General Motors (which offers OnStar as an integrated system that features hands-free calling) and Ford (which does the same with Sync) had submitted comments opposing the Center for Auto Safety's petition. The agency explained its decision by saying that if these systems were shut down during travel, drivers would simply pull out their cell phone handsets and resume their dialogue.

Because a ban against cell phone use while driving is impractical, Consumer Reports deputy technical director David Champion suggested in a blog the use of public service announcements to warn drivers of the risk and stiff penalties for those multitasking with their mobile phones behind the wheel.

Image © Stefan Klein