Q&A with Myron Levin: Holding regulators accountable for safety lapses

Published on
September 4, 2009

My former colleague at the Los Angeles Times, Myron Levin, played an important role in unearthing new information about cell phone use and car accidents. He wrote stories for the Los Angeles Times and Mother Jones that prompted the Center for Auto Safety to sue the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). The suit forced NHTSA to release documents detailing its decision to keep secret research that warned about the use of phones while driving. The New York Times recently credited Levin's work in its series "Driven to Distraction."

I reached Levin at his home office in Los Angeles. A recap of the second part of our conversation is below. The first part was posted last Friday. Both have been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Is the decision by NHTSA to withhold what appears to be important public health information akin to anything you've seen in the past?

A: I did a story about tougher standards for vehicle safety, looking at all the cases where NHTSA had studied tougher standards forever and then, for one reason or another, never did anything. I related how they were at an appropriations hearing, and some Congressman was outraged and just flayed them over an incident that supposedly had occurred in Illinois, where someone from NHTSA was there when Illinois legislature was considering a helmet mandate for motorcycle drivers. This was seen as lobbying of the states, which is verboten. I read the transcript of this Congressman's tirade. He was foaming at the mouth about how inappropriate it was. I thought, wouldn't it be terrible if the country's premier traffic safety agency took a stand on helmet safety? It was sort of grotesque.

Q: You talked with former NHTSA administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge about the agency's decision to scrap plans to tell governors nationwide that hands-free cell phone use was just as dangerous as regular cell phone use. How did you persuade him to talk with you?

A: I was well into my reporting, and I found a really terrific story that had been in The Wall Street Journal about evidence of on road use of cell phones. New Jersey and New York had passed hands-free laws. The Journal was advancing the idea that cell phone companies had distorted some of the research. They got Runge on the record about how NHTSA had drafted a letter but never sent it. But they didn't get a copy of the letter. By the time I read this story, I already had the letter. I was a little freaked out that this letter that was going to be a big part of my story had been mentioned in the Journal.

Q: So you contacted Runge and said, "You talked to the Journal. Why not talk to me?"

A: Not exactly. He had gone to Homeland Security. He had left NHTSA in about 2005. He became the assistant secretary of homeland security for medical affairs or something. He's a medical doctor. He was in the process of retiring. I received no calls back. I'm looking around for a home phone for him. Then I found somehow that his wife was a fairly prominent artist, and I found through some Web site her email address. So I sent an email to her, and said pass this on to your husband, please. It was a note saying, "I know you tried to do something while you were at NHTSA, and it didn't work out. I want to write about it." So, he finally said, basically, "You are very persistent, and I will talk to you. But not now. Call me in two weeks." Then I couldn't reach him for quite a while, but I finally talked to him. I don't think he was completely unguarded, but at least he talked to me.

Before all this happened, in 2003, Runge had made a public statement about the rollover propensity of SUVs. The auto industry had a cow, and there were rumors that he almost got fired. So the rumor was when the cell phone research was done, here he was getting ready to go off the reservation again. This would be the last straw. It would be the second time he got way out in front of the administration on something. Regardless of whether that's exactly correct, I believe he was genuinely concerned about it, and that's why he agreed to talk with me.

Q: There's a great juxtaposition in your story. You say, "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." Were you just tickled pink to find that fact?

A: I actually had written about that some years before. Somebody at Mother Jones said, "We need to put this cell phone issue in perspective," and I said, "They regulate all kinds of things that kill 10 or 40 people a year." And they said, "Come up with an example." I remembered this one because this trunk latch problem was so simple to do it cost like 40 cents and there had been like 11 people who died, mostly children, who had been locked in trunks. And people who had been kidnapped. There was no opposition from automakers, and they still took forever to do it. Now it's a latch that you can just punch, and the trunk will open.

Q: What was NHTSA's reaction to your piece?

A: I don't know what their reaction was. Nobody from there ever contacted me.

Q: Have you heard from any of the wireless companies?

A: No. It's been a lot of people in the public writing in on the Mother Jones Web site or emailing me. I've gotten leads on other things. But as far as a reaction in a big way, the biggest reaction was that after the story that ran in the Los Angeles Times, Clarence Ditlow at the Center for Auto Safety FOIA'd the NHTSA about everything that they had on this topic. They turned him down, basically, and he appealed. And they gave him redacted copies that left out all the good stuff. So he sued them. That was the most concrete result.

Q: The New York Times followed your Mother Jones piece in July with a series called "Driven to Distraction." They mentioned your work. What do you think of the series?

A: I think it's really good. When I first left the Los Angeles Times I went to The New York Times Magazine with my idea for this story about cell phones and safety, and they didn't take it. But I think The New York Times at some point contacted Clarence Ditlow, who was quoted in at least one of my articles. They were looking for information, and he was a logical place to go. In the process of putting the piece together the story for Mother Jones, I acquired a whole cache of documents through unofficial channels. Probably, it was a missed opportunity on my part to not recommend to Mother Jones that all these documents be put on the Web site. I tend to take the view that a lot of documents are not accessible to the ordinary person. These documents don't read like things you ordinarily read. Clarence was actually puzzled about why I didn't put them up there.

Q: What are you doing now?

A: I'm doing freelance writing, and I'm trying to help someone who is working on a documentary film about tobacco. I'm also trying to start an online publication that will feature original investigations on safety- and health-related things in conjunction with one or more journalism schools.