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Q&A with Myron Levin: Forcing the feds to talk about cell phones and car crashes

Q&A with Myron Levin: Forcing the feds to talk about cell phones and car crashes

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Investigative reporter Myron Levin has a knack for breaking new ground with transportation stories. He co-wrote a great series of stories about problems with U-Haul for the Los Angeles Times and followed that up with a story about distracted drivers in March 2008. He then dove deeper into that topic, after leaving the Times, for a piece in Mother Jones in October 2008.

As a result of those stories, a safety activist group sued under the Freedom of Information Act for details about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) decision to withhold from the public research that warned about the use of phones while driving. The group won. The documents were released. And the New York Times has used the documents as the jumping off point for a series of stories called "Driven to Distraction."

I reached Levin at his home office in Los Angeles. A recap of the first part of our conversation is below. It has been edited for space and clarity. The second part will be posted next Friday.

Q: What first got you interested in the concept of distracted driving or inattention blindness?

A: I was a real holdout about getting a cell phone. But too many times I bitched about some after-hours editing change and heard an editor say, "Do we have your cell phone number?" After I started using one, I realized quickly I was doing things on the road that were terrible. I had a few near misses. It made me think, "What is the mesmerizing influence of this instrument here? Here I am writing stories that have a safety and health theme to them, and I am a menace." Thinking you can get a lot done while you are in traffic, has a lot of appeal, but I decided I had to stop making calls while I was driving. Then I saw a petition to NHTSA that was about all the different things that are being built into cars that would actively draw your attention to entertain yourself while you are on the road. I started to think about this being an area that, because everyone drives or crosses the street, affects everyone. This would have been about the fall of 2007 when I was trying to finish up follow-ups to the U-Haul project.

Q: You wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times about the use of hands-free devices and how states like California were passing laws treating them like a safe alternative when the research showed otherwise. Other than the fact that those ear pieces look dumb, what made you skeptical?

A: I had no proof of an equivalent risk. I had not used a hands-free device. I really didn't know that one was safer than the other. But I did know that, for me, it was the mental distraction of using the phone and not the manipulation of the buttons that was the problem. I also know that people don't drive with two hands. They just don't. In general, with or without a phone, people drive one handed, and that wasn't going to change without a hands-free device. So I always felt that bromide about two hands on the wheel is better was wrong. Then I began to read some studies that suggested that there was no difference. Assume that hands-free is 10 to 20 percent safer. Now, because you are using a hands-free device, you talk 10 to 20 percent more time because you think you are being safe and legal. Because of that, you completely obviate any decrease in the risk. That's a pretty difficult problem to pinpoint in a precise way. People were being lulled into thinking it was safe and legal and blessed by law enforcement authorities and legislatures. "I just invested $50 in a hands-free device, and, damn it, I'm going to use it." The people who were advocating this were advocating it without any real evidence.

Q: What sort of scientific literature reviewing did you do for this story? Did you go to a place like PubMed and type in "inattention blindness" or were you talking to folks at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute and then having them send you articles? What was the process?

A: A little of both of those things. I would see the studies either quoted or referenced on Web sites. I would call the researchers on those studies and ask them to email me things or show me on Web sites where to find things. I would read the footnotes and then call those researchers, too.

Q: You start your story in Mother Jones with a nightmarish scenario. A woman driving while on a cell phone crashes into a car and kills a 12-year-old boy. How did you find this example and, more importantly, how did you get so many great details about the accident?

A: I found the family through David Strayer, a researcher at the University of Utah, who has put people in simulators and done things like find out that driving with a cell phone is similar to driving with a blood alcohol content of .08. In the course of talking to him, it somehow came up that he knew this Dave Teater who had had this personal tragedy and who now was working with this company to bring a product to market in an attempt to make cell phones safer. And I got all those details by carefully reading the police report, court records, documents from the litigation that resulted from that accident. I also talked to the family, and I wove that picture together. I thought it was very important to make the story at least resemble how vivid it really was.

Q: You do a great job in the story of describing how the roadway is providing information at the same time that a person is being fed information from a cell phone conversation. Did you find that most people don't really think of the roadway giving them information, and that they think of conversations as mostly passive activities?

A: A lot of people will defend using a cell phone on the road as being no more engaging as other things they might do. Other people completely admit that it's different but they're still going to do it. A lot of survey data says that people think it's a dangerous activity, but they don't want to give it up. I do think that a lot of people under-perceive how it does affect their driving. I think a lot of people have had the sense of seeing something and not reacting to it quickly enough because they were on the phone.

Q: You cited studies from Canada (pdf.) and Australia that concluded that talking on cell phones quadrupled a driver's crash risk. The Australia study was pretty recent, from 2005, but the Canadian study was from 1997. Why has it taken so long for people to pay attention to research like this?

A: There are a few things. First of all, this has worked its way into the culture. People are so attached to their electronics and have become wedded to the idea of being connected at all times. I see people now on airplanes who dial a cell phone while the airplane is on approach to the runway. Even though it is totally verboten from a safety standpoint, they will use their cell phone because they can't wait any longer. I also think it's a lack of leadership on the part of federal transportation authorities. They haven't wanted to grapple with this. They have the excuse that they have no regulatory power over drivers and over the cell phone industry. They can only advise people with what to do. But that's the same with seat belts and drunk driving. They don't make laws about seat belts or drunk driving. States have to do that. And yet they put out a lot of information generally exhorting people to do the right thing, and it has made a difference. This was such an amazing growth industry.

Even with the economy in the toilet, I don't think anyone is dropping their cell phone subscription. There is this assumption that it would be terminal for the business if it were regulated or actively discouraged. People find driving so boring and time consuming, that they really enjoy using their phones. In the early days of cell phones, people being allowed to use phones while they drove was absolutely critical to the growth of this industry. It wasn't like today, where people have given up their land lines. People had a home phone, and they didn't want to get an extra phone for the extra cost. So why would they do it? Only so they could use the phone when they were out of the home and out of the office, which meant using it behind the wheel. At the time that NHTSA began looking at this, there were estimates that 40% of all available minutes were being used behind the wheel. You're talking about billions of dollars. Now it's not of such a great consequence to the companies because they are selling buckets of minutes. They are selling you an unlimited minutes plan. They don't really need you to talk while you drive.

Q: A big finding of your story was this federal government estimate of 955 deaths in 2002 from cell-phone-related accidents. You were able to get that number through "unofficial channels." Why has that number been hidden?

A: I just think because of incredible timidity on the part of NHTSA. They were both rounding up and synthesizing all the research and information around the world about cell phones. They were trying to figure out how to communicate this to the state governments and to the general public. They were worried about the growth of onboard electronics built into vehicles. This was already a problem and going to get worse. And texting was growing, and that was even a scarier thing. When you estimate 955 deaths from something, it forces you to do something in response. And if you say that number is only going to grow, it forces you to do something. They weren't ready to do something. They could say they didn't have enough data, but there will never be enough data. You're not going to have physical evidence like you do with drunk driving. If you don't have the driver admitting it or an eye witness to report that someone was using a cell phone it's very hard to make the case. It's going to be very underreported, and you have to do various calculations and extrapolations to get to 955 deaths.

Q: And that wasn't even the biggest number out there.

A: There was one study from Harvard School of Public Health that estimated 2,600 deaths a year. Coming from the government, that would have been a pretty big deal. It appears to be a case of self-censorship. Certain people in Congress would go bananas and question why NHTSA was off the reservation. "You can't regulate cell phone use. You have enough to do with your budget." So they just buried the whole effort. One of the things that these three researchers who worked on this did that was buried was they created an annotated bibliography of worldwide research with more than 150 items. They wrote a summary of the major conclusions. That document had no policy recommendations and should not have been controversial. It was just an informational tool that could have been valuable to researchers and the general public. But when it finally went up on the NHTSA Web site, they had taken all the summaries out so it was just names of studies and titles. It was absolutely worthless.

Q: My sense from the story was that, the industry was so powerful that it didn't need to make a call and threaten or cajole. It was just assumed that they would throw a fit or their friends in Congress would throw a fit, so the report was dust-binned.

A: Unless there is some evidence out there that we don't know about, it appears that this industry is so powerful and so large and influential with so many employees and so many people depending on them for a service and for advertising. Within the agency, the assumption is that this would be such a shot across the bow and potentially wounding to them that they would be furious and various people in Congress would be furious. We have enough fights already. Let's not take this one on.

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that  was pretty interesting im very sorry sad story

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