Safety panel calls on government to ban cellphones from drivers
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While auto safety officials have targeted driver distraction as a major threat for years, most drivers still use phones while driving, a majority don't think it's a safety problem and many report texting or answering emails from behind the wheel. And some safety experts question the effort too, nothing that as cellphone use by drivers has exploded, traffic deaths have fallen to their lowest level since 1949.
The announcement by the National Transportation Safety Board follows its probe into a Missouri crash last year where a 19-year-old pickup truck driver texting behind the wheel trigged a crash with two school buses that killed him and a 15-year-old child on the bus, leaving 38 other children and adults injured.
The NTSB's recommendation calls on every state to ban all use of cellphones or other Internet devices by drivers, whether handheld or via hands-free devices like Bluetooth connections or the in-dash systems like Ford's MyFordTouch that have become standard equipment in many new vehicles. It also recommended that states step up enforcement of such laws to "high visibility" levels.
The only exception NTSB would allow for dialing and driving would be in emergencies.
"It is past time to face the facts that no one can drive safely when driving is not their focus," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. "It's time to curb the carnage on our roads from distraction-related accidents."
The NTSB doesn't have the power to create new safety rules on its own, and federal law leaves it up to states to enact any new laws against driver behavior. But NTSB recommendations often lead to tougher safety rules, and the federal government can arm-twist states into putting new laws into place, such as raising the legal drinking age to 21. Commercial vehicle drivers, who fall under federal law, are already banned from texting while driving.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week that distractions of all kinds — from cellphones to events outside vehicles — were linked to the deaths of 3,092 people from vehicle crashes in 2010. Overall, deaths in traffic accidents fell to 32,885, the lowest since 1949, and when adjusted for how many miles Americans drive, hit their lowest rate ever recorded.
So far, the U.S. Department of Transportation has fought distraction from handheld devices, with 35 states banning their use by drivers. Last week, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood scolded Americans for a litany of bad driving habits, citing new research showing 18% of drivers texting or emailing while driving, with more than half of drivers under 25 doing so. A different survey of drivers on the road estimated 5% were using hand-held devices despite bans, and three-quarters of drivers say they're willing to answer calls.
"All of our evidence suggests that the problem may actually be getting worse," LaHood said.