How AAA's Foundation For Traffic Safety Misused Otherwise Good Data

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You've probably seen the headlines in recent weeks: According to the American Automobile Association's Foundation for Traffic Safety, talking on a cell phone is not nearly as dangerous as eating a Big Mac, applying eyeliner while driving, or turning up the volume on your radio.

Why did the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's study make headlines? Because the results seemed counterintuitive and are the opposite of nearly all other cell phone research--except for the research funded by the cell phone industry.

The implications of the study? If using a cell phone while driving isn't nearly as dangerous as we all thought, maybe it's not such a bad thing? And, if that's the case, maybe we're all wasting our time trying to legislate against it?

Well, it turns out that the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety's findings don't make sense for a good reason--their methodology is all wrong. Here's why.

To research driver distraction, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety used the most comprehensive database in the country, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's National Auto Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System, known as NASS-CDS.

Stay with us here--this is important. Your life or the life of someone you love might depend on it.

NASS-CDS is an ongoing study of more than 5,000 accidents each year. Trained investigators look at wrecked vehicles, read through police reports, and talk to accident victims.

Sounds fine, right? Wrong.

The problem is, the investigators are not looking for driver distraction. They only make a note of it if the accident victim volunteers the information during an interview, or as part of the police report.

Now, be honest. Let's say you just grabbed your cell phone to answer a call, and rear-ended the Mercedes E Class in front of you. The blue lights from the state police are flashing in your rearview mirror. The guy in front of you is clutching his neck and already making noises about "seeing you in court." The ambulance is on its way, with a flock of personal-injury attorneys sprinting in close pursuit. Are you going to tell the cop, "You know, I really screwed up. I answered my phone when I should have been paying attention to the traffic. It's my fault. Boy, do I feel stupid"?

Of course you won't. It's not human nature to admit fault--especially when a bunch of polyester-clad lawyers and insurance adjusters are starting to circle your vehicle.

We called the director of the NASS-CDS data, a great guy by the name of Joe Carra. He readily admits that driver distraction is underreported in their data. Says Joe, the data they're getting on driver distraction is "just the tip of the iceberg."

The fact is, much-better research already exists on this topic. The best study, in our humble opinion, is more than four years old. Back in 1997, researchers studied actual phone records from Canadian drivers, correlating them with the time of their accidents. They didn't rely on drivers to admit fault. They were able to determine conclusively whether the driver was talking on his cell phone at the time of the accident. Their findings, published in the New England Journal of Medicine are well known: drivers are nearly four times more likely to have an accident when they're talking on the phone--about the same rate as when driving while legally drunk.

So the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety screwed up. The group that says they're "Saving Lives through Research and Education" is doing neither. As a result, we're all further misinformed. And, in the meantime, more people are dying and getting injured every day as a result of selfish, stupid drivers who think a call on their phone is more important than the safety of every other person with whom they share the road.

It's time we get off our collective tuchuses, admit we have an enormous safety problem that's out of control, and pass some laws.

If the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety doesn't want to be part of the solution, they should at least not confuse the issue with shoddy research. Shame on them for providing ammunition to the cell phone industry. Not all legislators will realize that their "findings" are completely bogus.

It's time we made the roads safe once again. We'd like a retraction and an apology from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety.

If you'd like to get a retraction from the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, you can drop them a note at

Tom and Ray Magliozzi,
Click and Clack the Tappet Brothers
Car Talk on NPR