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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 3:00 AM EDT

In the past, NHTSA has acted on safety issues that result in far fewer fatalities than cell phones; in 2001, for instance, it required automakers to install vehicle trunk latches to prevent people from being trapped inside. But targeting cell phones would have kindled a political firestorm, inviting angry attacks from the wireless industry and its congressional allies. At the time, the industry was hauling in more than $87 billion in wireless service revenues—a figure that soared to $139 billion in 2007—thanks in part to subscribers using about 40 percent of their minutes while driving, according to some estimates. Then, as now, the industry argued that drivers face all manner of distractions, from eating to shushing noisy kids. It would be unfair to single out cell phones.

There is no evidence that wireless companies interfered directly to crush NHTSA's initiative, but the industry has nonetheless ensured itself plenty of clout in the corridors of power. Since 2000, the main trade group, known as CTIA, has spent $35 million lobbying Congress, and $2.4 million more donating to federal candidates and parties, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Individual companies such as AT&T and Verizon have spent many millions more.

John Flaherty, Secretary Mineta's chief of staff at the time, told me he opposed NHTSA's warning to the governors because the agency didn't have enough evidence to fend off attacks from the industry and Congress. "I said the letter shouldn't go out at that point because we need to be more data driven on this," he said. (For his part, Mineta told me he'd never seen the letter.)

During the 1990s, Flaherty briefly lobbied for CTIA on the issue of 911 calls, but he says this connection didn't color his views. "I was aware of what [industry] could do to frustrate safety legislation," he said. His basic argument, he recalled, was that "whatever we're doing, we need to be certain of this. Otherwise, we're going to get our lunch handed to us.'' Both Runge and Flaherty, now a principal with the equity firm the Carlyle Group, said they weren't lobbied by the industry.

Today, NHTSA’s policy regarding mobile phones is tucked into an obscure corner of its website. Using a cell phone, the site notes, "can pose a serious cognitive distraction and degrade driver performance," although "the data are insufficient to quantify crashes caused by cell phone use specifically."

Such language is "crafty" in light of the censored estimate of 955 deaths, remarks William H. Walsh Jr., a former high-level NHTSA official. It was merely an estimate, to be sure. (Because witnesses are rare and police agencies have different reporting standards, reliable data on cell phone wrecks do not exist.) It wasn't even the largest estimate: A study by the Harvard School of Public Health put the annual death toll from cell-related wrecks at 2,600. But coming straight from the government, the 955-death figure "would have gotten a lot of notoriety," Walsh said.

It's one thing to generally advise people not to talk on the phone, and quite another "to attach a number to it—a big number," Walsh added. "They don't put the numbers out there because the numbers make it a lot harder to explain why you haven't been more active."

NHTSA's website also features an eviscerated version of an annotated bibliography prepared by agency researchers. The original included summaries of key findings from more than 150 worldwide studies involving distractions posed by cell phones and other things. The bibliography contained no policy recommendations, and would have been a valuable resource for scientists, the public, and the press. But the summaries were removed from the Web version, reducing it to little more than a list of authors and titles. "How could you be afraid of an annotated bibliography?" asks Michael Goodman, who worked at NHTSA as a research psychologist prior to his retirement in 2005. "It is very clear that for political-economic reasons, this whole thing was put to rest."

Goodman calls the episode "an embarrassment to the agency…To have it tossed out is not only, I think, unethical, but it's also a waste of public funds."

 

Proceeding without federal guidance, more concerned state officials began enacting hands-free laws as a political path of least resistance. Following New York's lead, California, Connecticut, New Jersey, Washington, and the District of Columbia now require drivers to use a headset or other hands-free devices. (Motorola has promoted its headsets with the slogan "You have the right to keep talking… Know your rights. Talk it up.") According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 18 states and DC now restrict cell phone use by teens or novice drivers—laws that could save lives if enforced. More than 30 states also bar placement of on-board TV screens where drivers can watch them.

But other electronic distractions are proliferating without independent scrutiny. Portable GPS navigation systems, which are selling by the millions, typically feature spoken directions, an improvement over paper maps. But the devices include other bells and whistles that draw attention away from the road: Drivers can tap in requests for lists of restaurants, movies, and golf courses. Some models even include video games. News organizations and websites typically tout the coolest features in their gadget reviews, ignoring safety entirely. It's up to individual drivers to set boundaries and manage their temptations—a fine arrangement if they weren't sharing the road with everyone else.

Eager to share in the bonanza, automakers are building ever more advanced electronics directly into their offerings. In January 2007, the Center for Auto Safety, a consumer watchdog, petitioned NHTSA to require that interactive devices be made inoperable while the vehicle is moving, but the agency denied the request.

Instead, NHTSA has asked automakers to police themselves. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing 10 US and foreign automakers, maintains a set of voluntary design standards to limit distractions from in-vehicle devices. Among its key provisions: Electronic tasks must be simple enough to perform with a series of two-second glances away from the road, for a total glance time of no more than 20 seconds. A panel of the Society of Automotive Engineers—which included many of the same industry members—came up with a similar guideline. "The number was, very candidly, a negotiated number,'' admitted James P. Foley, who chaired the SAE panel and now works as a Toyota engineer. "It was the lowest number that the most people could live with."

To comply, some automakers now include a lockout feature to keep drivers from performing complicated tasks—like entering destinations into a car's navigation system—while the vehicle is moving. Even so, authorities such as Transport Canada, Canada's highway safety agency, have complained that the "2/20" rule allows extraordinarily long glance times. "When you're going 60 miles an hour, two seconds is 176 feet," says Clarence Ditlow, who runs the Center for Auto Safety. "If your eyes are off the road for 176 feet, that's not good."

A recent announcement by Chrysler threatens to undermine that rule in any case; the automaker said in June that it will offer a new wireless network, "uconnect web," to transform vehicles into Wi-Fi "hot spots." This will enable the use of portable devices for everything from Web surfing to online games to TV and videos. But it won't violate the industry's voluntary guidelines, Chrysler argues, because those rules apply only to built-in equipment, not portables. "There already exist plenty of opportunities for people to do irresponsible things with personal communication devices in their vehicles," said company spokesman Max Gates. "Of course, we're hoping for responsible use of that Web access by owners of the vehicle."

 

Holly Smeckert pleaded guilty to negligent homicide in May 2004. Drivers involved in a crash rarely acknowledge that they were on a cell phone—one reason for the lack of good data—but Smeckert admitted she was leaving a message at her church. "On the voicemail," noted a police report, "Holly identified herself and began leaving the message when squealing can be heard and then silence.''

Smeckert might have received up to two years in jail, but the Teaters spoke up on her behalf. "As much as she has hurt us, our family does not support incarceration for Mrs. Smeckert,'' Dave Teater said in a statement at her sentencing. "From what we have heard, she is a good person who made a terrible mistake, and we do not see how jail will benefit anyone….We do not think anything less than a ban on cell phone usage while driving will have an impact.'' Smeckert was ordered to perform community service and lost her driver's license for five years. Soon after, she and her husband moved out of state. She did not respond to interview requests for this story.

Dave and Judy Teater did, however, sue Smeckert's employers, Philip and Roberta DeVries. The young nanny, it turned out, had racked up a string of speeding tickets, but the DeVrieses never checked her driving record before handing over the keys to their Hummer H2.

The case settled for $1.6 million. Dave and Judy used some of the money to establish a foundation, the Joe Teater Imagine Fund, which has underwritten camp scholarships and a water project in Honduras, and given to the National Safety Council. Dave, who had never taken part in social causes, threw himself into a cell phone safety crusade. His rebuttal to an article in USA Today appeared in the letters section. The paper had quoted an industry spokesman as saying that most crashes do not involve cell phones. "That's as ridiculous an argument as saying the majority of accidents don't involve alcohol,'' Teater wrote.

Online, he found more chronicles of heartbreak. In Houston, a driver on a cell phone drifted onto the shoulder, striking and killing a young traffic officer. The driver was on a call to his insurance company, because earlier that day he was rear-ended at a stoplight by someone on a cell phone. In Massachusetts, an 18-year-old high school grad crashed and died during a cell phone chat with his parents. Shortly after the line went dead, police arrived to break the news to the father, who had previously operated a string of cell phone shops.

Teater also contacted David Strayer of the University of Utah, coauthor of the study that compared cell phones to alcohol, to offer his encouragement and thanks. The scientist put Teater in touch with a woman named Mandy Chan. She and her husband, John Geyer, were successful tech entrepreneurs who had sold their DVD publishing service to Amazon in 2005. At a picnic, some friends of theirs had described a news broadcast that showed teen drivers yapping on cell phones. Chan and Geyer were looking for their next venture, and it gave them an idea. If parents could disable their kids' phones when the kids were driving, it could save lives and be a moneymaker, too. The couple ultimately launched a company called Aegis Mobility Inc. to develop and market the technology.

When they finally met the Teaters in late 2006, Chan and Geyer were impressed by Dave's business credentials; they hired him on as an executive the following May. Three years after Joe's death, and still trying to claw his way out of depression, Dave had finally gained a new sense of purpose. He and Judy used some of the settlement money to invest in Aegis, and drummed up other investors. One was Timothy Smith, author of Crashproof Your Kids, a how-to that covers cell phones. The book was inspired by a spate of teen fatalities near Smith's Chicago suburb—and by his own jitters, knowing his own kids would soon be on the road. Smith, in turn, recruited friends to invest.

The Aegis software can detect when a phone is in a "driving state," which lets target customers—mostly parents and company safety directors—monitor on-road calling activity or block calls while the car is in motion. The hard part has been finding partners among the big wireless companies, which would sell the blocking service for an extra monthly fee. In October, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Co. said it would offer discounts to customers using Aegis once wireless providers adopt the technology.

In the meantime, Teater has become a sought-after speaker at safety conferences. John Ulczycki, communications director for the National Safety Council, called the Teaters "fantastic spokespeople," because they "don't come across as people who feel sorry for themselves.''

Instead, Teater engages his audiences with research, statistics, facts. Rather than dwell on Joe's death, he treats it almost as just another fact, which makes the power of his presentation that much greater. He was recently invited to speak at two conferences in Canada, whose organizer had attended another of his talks and thought he'd had a profound effect on the audience. And on the organizer as well: Following Teater's presentation, she'd personally stopped answering her phone while driving.

"I love getting that stuff,'' says Dave. "It kind of tells me I'm on the right track."

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