A federal agency has urged state legislatures to introduce a flat-out ban on any cellphone use by drivers, except in genuine emergencies.
Previous proposals at both state and federal level have varied in scope, with some states banning texting or handheld use of phones by drivers. Now the National Transportation Safety Board is going a step further and arguing that it’s time for a total ban on any use, even with hands-free equipment or wireless headsets.
Although the board said it was taking into account a decade of studies, the specific recommendation came in response to a report into a Missouri pile-up last August involving two trucks and two buses that killed two people and injured another 35. Officials believe the accident was caused by a driver being distracted after exchanging 11 text messages in the minutes leading up to the crash.
The NTSB says that not only should states ban drivers from using any portable electronic devices other than “those designed to support the driving task” (ie GPS), but that states should use “high visibility enforcement” and launch publicity campaigns.
The enforcement is a particularly relevant issue in the Missouri case: the state does ban those under 21 from texting while driving, so the 19-year-old driver was already breaking the law. That said, even while police watching out for people using phones is a difficult task, it’s harder if they have to guess how old people are: a person who might be flattered to be asked for ID when buying alcohol probably wouldn’t be so happy being pulled over.
The board has also asked phone manufacturers to consider putting blocks on phone when they are within reach of a driver and the vehicle is in motion, though with an override for emergencies. It didn’t go into detail about how it actually expected this to work.
The New York Times gives a frank assessment of the politics behind the recommendation: no state is forced to take any notice and many won’t. However, those that do consider bans will be able to cite the recommendation, particularly as this is the first time there’s been such official backing for a complete ban.
At the moment 35 states (plus DC) ban texting, while nine (plus DC) ban all handheld use. None have bans on hands-free use: an association bringing together traffic agencies across the states says that likely won’t change any time soon, but will now be a more serious topic for debate.