The National Transportation Board doesn’t want you calling or texting behind the wheel and has called on states to ban the use of cellphones and other gadgets while driving.
The move is sure to bring howls of protest from just about every quarter, as a recent study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that, at any given time during daylight hours, as many as 13.5 million people are fiddling with a phone when they should be driving.
The recommendation, unanimously approved Tuesday by the five-member board, would apply to hand-held and hands-free devices used by the drivers of any and all vehicles on the road. Passengers would continue being able to play Fruit Ninja to while away the time, and drivers could use phones in an emergency
The board’s decision was spurred by a massive pileup near Gray Summit, Missouri, that killed two people and injured 38 others on Aug. 5, 2010. It was caused by a 19-year-old-pickup driver who sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes immediately before the crash.
The accident is a “big red flag for all drivers,” NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said, according to the Christian Science Monitor. “Driving was not his only priority. No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.”
That’s true. And distracted driving clearly is a problem.
The NHTSA said 3,092 roadway fatalities in 2010 involved distracted drivers, although the actual number may be higher. Board member Robert Sumwalt called distracted driving “the new DUI.”
Indeed. A 2009 study by the Virginia Transportation Institute found dialing a phone made the likelihood of a crash almost three times higher if you’re driving a car and almost six times higher in a truck. Texting in a truck makes you almost 24 times more likely to have an accident, the study found.
And the Missouri crash was hardly unusual. The board has in recent years investigated a deadly commuter rail accident in California, a fatal tugboat accident in Philadelphia and a Northwest Airlines flight that overshot its destination by more than 100 miles. In every case, the people who should have been operating the machinery instead had their eyes glued to a gadget.
Roughly two out of 10 American drivers, and half of those between 21 and 24, admit sending texts or e-mails from behind the wheel, according to an NTSB survey of more than 6,000 drivers cited by the Christian Science Monitor.
But Hersman conceded distracted driving has been a problem “since the Model T,” and we already have a patchwork of laws governing the use of phones behind the wheel. Thirty-five states ban texting while driving, 30 states ban the use of cellphones by young drivers and 10 states have outright bans on hand-held devices.
So what more can be done?
Well, enforcing the laws we already have would be a good place to start. According to the NTSB, the Missouri Highway Patrol has issued just 120 citations for texting while driving during the past two years.
“Without the enforcement, the laws don’t mean a whole lot,” Sumwalt said.
No kidding. Clearly we need greater enforcement, as well as an aggressive public education campaign. Beyond that, CNN reports that the safety board recommended that the electronics industry develop phones that discourage use by the driver but can tell where others are sitting in the vehicle so passengers can use them.
That doesn’t seem likely, or practical. And the industry doesn’t seemed jazzed about the idea.
“Manual texting while driving is clearly incompatible with safety, which is why we have historically supported a ban on texting while driving,” CTIA-The Wireless Association, the industry trade group, said in a statement. “As far as talking on wireless devices 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.
More technology may not be the answer. And it could all be moot anyway. As Mark Phelan of the Detroit Free Press noted, such a law would be about as effective as Prohibition and could perhaps make the situation worse by encouraging people to surreptitiously use their phones. Phil LeBeau of CNBC suggests the only truly effective way to keep drivers from using gadgets behind the wheel is to jam them, something the feds are not recommending.
Photo: Ryan Harvey/Flickr