NTSB Calls for Ban on Most Cell Phone Use While Driving

Federal safety regulators are urging states to adopt near-total bans on the use of cell phones while driving. The unanimous recommendation of the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) also applies to the use of hands-free devices, which many drivers mistakenly believe are safer.

“According to NHTSA (National Highway Safety Traffic Administration), more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents”, NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement announcing the proposal. “It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving.”

In its announcement, the NTSB pointed out that a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of commercial drivers found that a safety-critical event is 163 times more likely if a driver is texting, e-mailing, or accessing the Internet.

According to the Board’s statement:

“The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges use of the NHTSA model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.”

The proposal comes in the wake of several serious accidents that were blamed on drivers’ use of cell phones, including:

  • An August 2010 chain reaction crash in Missouri that involved a pick-up truck, truck tractor and school bus,that killed the driver of the pick-up and a 15-year-old on the school bus. The NTSB’s investigation revealed that the pick-up driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the accident. The last text was received moments before the pickup struck the truck-tractor.
  • A 2004 motorcoach crash in Virginia that injured 11 high school students. Just prior to the accident, the experienced motorcoach driver had been distracted while on his hands-free cell phone. He failed to move to the center lane and struck the underside of an arched stone bridge on the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria.

The NTSB’s call for a-near total ban on the use of cell phones while driving was greeted with praise by at least one researcher who has extensively studied the consequences of distracted driving.

“Banning the use of cell phones by drivers in non-emergency situations could be another dramatic step forward in further reducing the unacceptably high levels of driving-related fatalities in the U.S., which is most recently at about 33,000 people killed annually,” said Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) neuroscientist, Marcel Just. “While recent improvements in automobile safety equipment have made an enormous contribution, it remains to make improvements in the most important factor, driver performance, and to save thousands of additional lives per year. We are our own worst enemy.”

Just’s research shows that simply listening to someone speak on the other end of a cell phone reduces by 37 percent the amount of brain activity associated with driving, compared to driving alone, according to a CMU press release. Other research conducted by his laboratory shows that making cell phones hands-free or voice-activated is not sufficient in eliminating distraction to drivers.

“Drivers need to keep not only their hands on the wheel; they also have to keep their brains on the road,” Just said. “The clear implication of our work is that engaging in a conversation could jeopardize the judgment and reaction time if an atypical or unusual driving situation arose. Driving in quick-moving traffic is no place for an involved phone discussion, let alone texting.”

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