If you looked at an online news site today, read a newspaper, or watched the six o’clock news, you’re aware of this story:
The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended a nationwide ban on the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving, even hands-free devices. The recommendation is based on extensive research into traffic accidents and distracted driving.
The news stories all say the NTSB recommendation follows from an August 2010 freeway accident in Missouri, where a young driver … who, it was later shown, sent and received multiple text messages on his cellphone in the moments prior to impact … plowed into the back of a truck that had slowed down for road construction, causing a horrific chain collision.
Well, okay … but am I the only one to remember this story, from July 2009?
What this earlier story revealed … what no one is mentioning now … is that NTSB members did the research back in 2003 and tried to make the exact same recommendation then, only to have it quashed by the head of the agency due to “larger political considerations.”
In other words, the NTSB was unwilling to make enemies with senators and congressmen who take large contributions from the cellphone industry. That unwillingness extended from mid-2003 right up to yesterday, more than eight years. I wonder what changed?
The NTSB investigates civil aviation, railroad, highway, marine, and pipeline accidents in the United States and issues safety recommendations based on those investigations. Its mission is to protect the public. The NTSB is supposed to be independent, above the fray, and immune from political pressure. Why? So that it can speak truth to power.
The politicians ensured that while the NTSB might tell the truth it will also be toothless. They did this by denying the NTSB the power to make rules … all it can do is make recommendations. It’s up to rule-making agencies like the Department of Transportation, the Interstate Commerce Commission, and the Federal Aviation Administration to turn NTSB recommendations into regulations. The missions of the DOT, ICC, and FAA encompass both the safety of the public and the protection of the industries they regulate. The NTSB can speak truth to power; the rule-making agencies have to make compromises with power.
Clearly, though, some politicians don’t want any government agency speaking the truth, teeth or not, and they got to the “independent” NTSB the same way they get to everyone else — piss us off and there goes your funding. It’s as simple as that.
There’s no such thing as an independent watchdog agency in this country. Big money and political pressure touches everything. The NTSB has known for years just how huge an impact cell phone use has on traffic accident rates, and they’ve done nothing about it because the fix was in. I guess we should be thankful they’re finally doing the right thing … in many other countries, information like this would be suppressed forever, public safety be damned.
© 2011, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.