Wednesday, December 14, 2011

About the Proposed NTSB Ban On Cell Phones/Texting While Driving

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has proposed a nationwide ban on cell phone usage while driving, including a ban on calling, texting, or emailing while driving in an effort to reduce fatalities and injuries resulting from distracted drivers. The proposal would include a ban on hands-free devices.

It's the latter bit that caught some folks by surprise.
The NTSB recommendation is unlikely to cause states to immediately ban driver cell phone use, nor should they necessarily. Currently, no state has taken that hard a line, and only nine prohibit talking on a handheld cellphone while driving. A majority prohibit texting while driving. And many have restrictions on cellphone use for certain drivers — those with restricted (novice) licenses and school bus operators chief among them.

Maryland is already among the most restrictive of states in this arena. It's against the law to talk on a phone while driving, and this year the General Assembly expanded its ban on texting to include reading them and not just writing them.

The next logical step for Annapolis is not to ban cellphone use by drivers entirely but to make the existing prohibitions a primary offense rather than a secondary one. Currently, police can ticket someone for breaking the state's cellphone restrictions only if the driver has been pulled over for some other violation.

The arguments against primary enforcement — just like those against restricting cellphone use by drivers in general — are familiar but unconvincing. Most drivers, they will argue, can talk and drive responsibly just fine. And if the state must ban distractions, what about eating, smoking, changing radio stations, applying makeup, lecturing the kids or the dozens of other behaviors drivers might engage in that the law could never even anticipate?

All reasonable points, but they don't negate the growing evidence that cellphone use while driving is increasingly a contributing factor in accidents. The consequences of that behavior, while less severe than drinking and driving, are alarming: More than 3,000 people lose their lives each year in distraction-related crashes.

This is a list of the current statutory provisions across the country that limit cell phone and other devices while driving. California is the only state that prohibits all cell phone use, including hands free devices, but that's only for drivers under the age of 18. No state has restrictions as severe as what the NTSB recommends.

But the NTSB recommendations raise a far more troubling issue. The fact is that it's all too easy to get distracted while driving. Cell phones that aren't hands free are a distraction that can and should get limited. I'm much less convinced about hands free, although restrictions on novice drivers should be encouraged.

The NTSB doesn't take a position on the ergonomics of key components in cars - like incomprehensible and minuscule buttons for AC/radios and the touch/lcd screens. In some instances, they may be just as, or more, distracting than cell phones. That's something that the manufacturers need to look at, but the NTSB doesn't address this in their recommendations.

I would support a nationwide cell phone ban that requires hands free phone capabilities, but it seems a bit of a stretch to say that hands free should also be banned.

You get to a point of diminishing returns on enforcement - limited money that can be spent elsewhere (like making it safer for pedestrians to cross streets at crosswalks).

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