As always, it ain't the crime, it's the cover-up. In what looks to be Congress protecting its turf, a planned study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on driver distraction – specifically, drivers using cell phones – was put on hold. The reason, according to The New York Times, was allegedly a fear of upsetting the Capitol body. The reason, according to an ex-head of NHTSA, was "to avoid antagonizing members of Congress who had warned the agency to stick to its mission of gathering safety data but not to lobby states."

In 2003, NHTSA already had "hundreds of pages" of research on the effects of multitasking while driving. And yes, as many Autoblog commenters have surmised, the research does indeed point to people using their cell phones being "as likely to cause an accident as someone with a .08 blood alcohol content." NHTSA officials also felt that hands-free systems weren't a safe enough solution – drivers were still too distracted.

But when the safety agency drafted a letter to then Transport Secretary Norman Mineta that included policy recommendations, the head of the agency began hearing complaints about NHTSA overstepping its bounds. Congress, it was said, "warned the agency not to use its research to lobby states." As the story goes, the threat to NHTSA was that if it upset Congress, it "could jeopardize billions of dollars of its financing."

So instead of going forward with a focused study of cell phone usage that would include 10,000 drivers, the agency shelved everything and stayed quiet. Due to Freedom of Information Act requests, the research gathered up to now is being revealed. But there is still the issue of Congress holding back information that, frankly, could save lives.

What do you think? Do you use your mobile phone while driving? Do you think doing so should be illegal? Drop your fellow reader a line in 'Comments.'

[Source: The New York Times | Image: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty]