On the heels of a recent Mother Jones investigation into the mortal dangers of driving while gabbing on a cell phone, the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety has sued the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, accusing it of illegally withholding information related to the risks.
The lawsuit, filed yesterday in US District Court in Washington, DC, claims that the federal agency violated the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by refusing to release documents—including the first-ever government estimate of auto fatalities related to cell phone use: 955 deaths in 2002. NHTSA is a branch of the Department of Transportation that regulates the auto industry and aims to reduce injuries and deaths on the nation’s highways. Contacted today, agency spokesman Rae Tyson declined to comment on the suit.
This past Halloween, Mother Jones published a Web-exclusive piece by former Los Angeles Times investigative reporter Myron Levin, telling the story of a family torn apart by a son’s death at the hands of a distracted driver. The story also described a 2003 NHTSA review of worldwide research on the distraction posed by cell phones. The existence of the agency’s fatality estimate and other briefing papers and reports only became known to the public after Mother Jones and the LA Times obtained the documents through unofficial channels.
Critics have accused NHTSA of pushing the safety issue under the rug. Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the DC-based center, called his organization’s suit a “first step to getting NHTSA to do something…It’s time to get these statistics out, so that we can adopt effective policies to make sure that talking and driving doesn’t become the next drinking and driving.”
As Levin reported, NHTSA officials had also drafted a letter to the nation’s governors warning that state laws requiring hands-free use of cell phones could make things worse by encouraging more yakking behind the wheel. But Transportation officials objected and the letter was never sent.
The center first sought the documents last March, but its request was denied. Following an appeal, NHTSA released a few reports, but redacted some of the most significant portions, including the fatality estimate. Agency attorneys argued that the documents were exempt from disclosure because they contained “internal pre-decisional” information, and that their release “would have a chilling effect on the decision-making process.”
The suit, filed for the center by attorneys from the Public Citizen Litigation Group, seeks a judicial finding that NHTSA violated FOIA, along with a court order demanding the agency make the records available. Margaret Kwoka, a Public Citizen lawyer, insists the documents are not exempt. “NHTSA should not be withholding these important safety facts from the public,” she says.
For readers feeling a hint of familiarity, it’s worth noting that this isn’t the center’s first lawsuit related to stories we’ve published. Founded by the Consumers Union and Ralph Nader back in 1970, the Center for Auto Safety helped force a recall of the Ford Pinto stemming from “Pinto Madness,” our 1977 exposé regarding the popular car’s tendency to explode on impact.