Safety Board Urges Car Cellphone Ban
The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday asked states to prohibit the use of cellphones and other electronic devices while driving, even hands-free devices.
The agency's recommendations, made during a meeting to discuss a deadly highway collision that occurred in Missouri last year, go well beyond current restrictions on cellphones and hand-held devices while driving.
The NTSB can't force states to adopt such bans, but the recommendations of the five-member board may influence states to toughen cellphone regulations. Hands-free devices, which are designed to let drivers keep both hands on the wheel while talking on a cellphone via speakers or a headset, would be prohibited as well under the guidelines
"It may seem like it's a very quick call, a very quick text, a tweet or an update," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. "But accidents happen in the blink of an eye."
Ms. Hersman said agency investigations show that distractions are becoming more common in contributing to accidents on highways, railways and waterways. More than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents, she said.
No state bans use of both hand-held and hands-free cellphones for fully licensed drivers, although some have such a ban for younger drivers. Nine states and Washington, D.C., prohibit the use of hand-held cellphones, and 35 states and D.C. have a ban on texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association, a group that represents highway-safety offices.
The head of wireless trade group CTIA said the association has historically supported bans on texting while driving. But on the issue of talking while driving, "we defer to state and local lawmakers and their constituents as to what they believe are the most appropriate laws where they live," said CTIA President Steve Largent in a statement.
35: Number of states that ban text messaging while driving
9: Number of states that ban use of hand-held cellphones by drivers
0: States that ban hands-free devices for fully licensed drivers
Auto and electronics companies say digital hands-free technology that can transmit phone calls through a car's audio system gives drivers a safe way to communicate without letting go of the wheel. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers Tuesday reiterated that auto makers have designed these systems to be used while driving. "It's designed to be used in a way that helps drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel," the alliance said, adding that it is reviewing the NTSB's recommendation.
Although it might seem that hands-free devices would be safer by allowing drivers to keep both hands on the steering wheel, the U.S. Transportation Department has said research shows that drivers are still distracted by the phone conversation itself and miss audio and visual cues that would normally help a person avoid a crash.
"The NTSB is taking a very strong stand on this issue because we're seeking red flags when it comes to distraction, with both hand-held and hands-free," Ms. Hersman said in an interview.
The agency's recommendation is focused on state governments. But the U.S. Congress, which can provide grants for certain highway-safety programs, can help ensure that state bans are effective, Ms. Hersman said. She noted that the Senate Commerce Committee Wednesday is slated to vote on provisions that would provide "distracted driving grants" aimed at encouraging states to prohibit young drivers from texting while driving and banning all drivers from using cellphones.
"The federal government really does have a strong leadership role to take on this issue," she said. "The federal government can help incentivize the states to go in the right direction."
The Missouri case that prompted Tuesday's NTSB meeting involved a pickup-truck driver who crashed into the back of a truck-tractor, which had slowed down because of a construction zone. The NTSB investigation showed the pickup driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the accident. The pickup was then struck from behind by a school bus, which was hit by a second school bus. As a result, two people died and 38 others were injured.
The board also said phone manufacturers and phone providers should take steps to reduce cellphone use while driving "by developing features that discourage their use" or that limit the ability of consumers to use their phones while a car is moving.