The government documents released July 21 suggest it doesn't matter whether commuters are holding their cell phones in hand or not: Data shows chatting while driving slows reaction time -- a finding consumer groups now say the government never stressed at the expense of people's lives.
Data from the government's 2003 document also showed that there's a 38 percent increase of accident risk for cell phone users. It revealed that drivers made more the 200 million in-car calls each day at that time.
"What the government knew is that talking and driving is just as bad as drinking and driving," Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, told ABC News July 21.
"It doesn't matter whether it's handheld or hands-free," he added. "It's the distraction of talking to someone else, the conversation itself that causes the inattention that leads to crashes, deaths, and injuries."
At that time, Dr. Jeffrey Runge, NHTSA administrator when the studies were done, told ABC News that the previous administration was not trying to bury the data. He said other priorities at the time took precedent, adding that officials did not mount a full force campaign to publicize the cell phone studies.
Meantime, the government did warn that using a cell phone while driving can be dangerous.
On its Web site, NHTSA states that, "The safest course of action is to refrain from using a cell phone while driving."
ABC News' Ann Compton, Lisa Stark and Matt Hosford contributed to this report.