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Do Cell Phones Kill 1,000 People a Year?

In June 2003, the Bush administration nixed a report on the dangers of gabbing while driving. Six months later, a Michigan 12-year-old became another statistic.

| Fri Oct. 31, 2008 2:00 AM EDT

Behind the wheel and busy on her cell phone, Holly Jo Smeckert didn't slow down as she neared Knapp's Corner, a busy intersection in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

It was January 19, 2004, and the 20-year-old nanny and Sunday-school teacher was taking her young charge to dance class in her employers' Hummer. Smeckert was so absorbed in her call that she noticed neither the red light nor the line of cars stopped in the adjacent lane awaiting a signal change. Traffic flowed through the intersection in front of her, but that didn't register either. Without even touching the brakes, she blasted through the light at 45 miles an hour, slamming into a Chevy Suburban and pushing it 120 feet—over a sidewalk and onto a patch of snow.

The other driver, Judy Teater, wasn't badly hurt, but Joe, her 12-year-old son, bore the full impact. He was unconscious, his breathing wet and gurgling. Judy, a former nurse, struggled to clear an airway. An anesthesiologist pulled over and tried mouth-to-mouth, sucking blood from Joe's lungs and spitting it onto the snow. A neighbor of the Teaters who had witnessed the crash called Judy's husband Dave in near hysterics; he arrived in time to watch emergency crews extricate his son, and then rode with Joe in the ambulance.

The boy never regained consciousness. Doctors ran tests but found no sign of brain activity, so the Teaters gave their permission to take their son off life support and harvest his organs. Joe's death was a big local story, and hundreds of people turned out for his funeral.

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Dave Teater is tall and husky, a former small-college football player who, at 52, still looks fit. He was an early cell phone adopter himself, driving around in the late 1980s with a big, clunky one bolted to the console of his car. Back then, he ran an auto industry consulting firm and commuted about once a week between Grand Rapids and Southfield, near Detroit, a horrendous five-hour slog. His mobile filled the time and made him feel productive. Dead zones limited its utility at first, but as the network grew Dave found he could do conference calls while zipping along I-96. He'd hang up after a half hour, not knowing which side of Lansing he was on. A bit of foreshadowing, perhaps, but he didn't give it much thought until…Joe. Dave would later take up the cause of preventing more such deaths, and join a company that has pioneered cell phone safety technology. But for a time, he was too overwhelmed to do much of anything.

Joe was the youngest of Dave's three sons, and they were unusually close. Before he was born, Dave was preoccupied with his successful business. He also drank too much and, in his own eyes, fell short as a husband and father. Had he not joined AA and gone on the wagon, the Teaters would never have had their third child.

A cute kid with a million-candlepower smile, Joe had been counting down to his 13th birthday—and directing people not to call him "Joey." The day before the crash, Dave took him to the Detroit Auto Show, and then Greektown for lunch. Joe told his dad he needed to learn to like Greek food, because he was going to be an archaeologist, and "Greece is a real important place for archaeology." But Joe also struggled with attention deficit disorder. He was on the way to math tutoring when it happened.

In one unimaginable instant, the Teaters lost what they thought of as an almost perfect family life. Dave and Judy pretty much fell apart. Dave had never before wept from grief as an adult, but now tears came often. On the advice of a counselor, he kept a journal and poured out his despair. At times he felt envy for older people nearing the end of their lives. After a while, he became the volunteer director of a residential alcohol-treatment center. It helped to be involved with other people's problems, yet when his thoughts strayed from the loss of his son, he felt twinges of guilt. Compelled to drive past the accident site regularly, the Teaters sold their home and moved to a nearby town.

The crash sequence seemed equally incomprehensible: Smeckert had clear skies and good visibility. She was sober. And yet she had failed to process a whole string of visual cues. To Dave Teater, this made no sense at all—so he began to do some research.

The volume of scientific literature on cell phones and driving surprised Teater. He found studies that described gabbing motorists as driving impaired. Researchers had even coined a term—"inattention blindness"—to describe how a phone conversation could seize the mind like a tractor beam, dulling reaction times and situational awareness, particularly when the topic was complex or emotionally fraught. Paul Green, an engineering professor at the University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute, likened the mental demands to those of circus jugglers spinning plates on the ends of sticks. "You've got so much information from the roadway, and so much information from the phone, that it's just too much to deal with,'' he said.

A pair of studies in Canada (pdf.) and Australia concluded that talking on cell phones quadrupled a driver's risk of being in a crash. Researchers at the University of Utah tested 40 drivers in a simulator, monitoring responses to things like a car suddenly braking in front of them; the test subjects performed no better, and by some measures worse, while talking on a cell phone than they did with a blood alcohol level of .08 percent—legally drunk (pdf.).

Teater also learned that major corporations—including ExxonMobil, DuPont, and Shell—were so concerned about safety and liability that they banned on-road use of cell phones by their employees during work hours.

Why, he wondered, hadn't he heard about these things? Was everyone this ignorant? The thought made him angry. Holly Smeckert didn't seem like a bad person—her life was probably ruined, too. And had she been aware of the dangers, Teater thought, maybe she would have put down her phone.


Shortly before Joe's death, federal highway safety officials were having similar thoughts. Back in 2003, the wireless industry was in the midst of a phenomenal growth spurt, with millions of customers chatting and texting behind the wheel. (The US market has exploded from 1.2 million subscribers in 1987 to more than 250 million today; by one government estimate, 1 in 10 US drivers are using their cell phones at any given moment.) Other electronic distractions were multiplying, too, like cutting-edge navigation and infotainment systems that hadn't been independently evaluated for safety. It was time to take a stand, to tell motorists in no uncertain terms to hang up and drive. But then, abruptly, the federal officials backed off, leaving sobering cell phone safety data buried deep in the bureaucracy.

The shift played out at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a unit of the Transportation Department that regulates the auto industry and aims to reduce the annual toll of some 42,000 deaths on US roadways. Long hobbled by stingy budgets and agonizing caution, the agency has kept a low profile on the issue of electronic distractions.

In 2003, that seemed about to change. Agency researchers had spent months examining scores of studies and preparing hundreds of pages of briefing papers, laying the groundwork for a public outreach campaign. Among these documents, which NHTSA has refused to release but which were obtained for this article through unofficial channels, was the first-ever government estimate of deaths from cell phone-related crashes: 955 in 2002.

NHTSA administrator Jeffrey Runge was eager to act. In June 2003, he held a briefing for senior Transportation officials. "I was delighted with the briefing," he said in an email to his staff. "Mission accomplished so far."

Agency officials then drafted a bluntly worded letter to the nation's 50 governors on behalf of Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta. New York had become the first state to mandate use of hands-free devices, and other states were poised to follow. Officials at NHTSA feared such laws gave an imprimatur of safety to hands-free calling, perhaps encouraging drivers to spend more time on the phone. "Overwhelmingly, research worldwide indicates that both hand-held and hands-free cell phones increase the risk of a crash," the letter warned. "We are convinced that legislation forbidding the use of hand-held cell phones…will not be effective" and "may erroneously imply that hands-free phones are safe to use."

That letter was never sent—Mother Jones obtained it only after a persistent safety activist and lawyer named Aaron Wolff took the agency to court and pried loose a copy in 2007. The agency's estimate of cell phone deaths went unpublished, and the highway safety researchers who hoped to condense their huge briefing document into a public report were instructed not to.

Runge, who left NHTSA in 2005 to become assistant secretary for health affairs at Homeland Security, said in a recent interview that the decision not to send the letter was made "above my pay grade." He explained that "it was our responsibility to tell people what we knew," but there was no support for the initiative within the DOT. "When things are not going to fly, you move on,'' he said.

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