Safety panel calls on government to ban cellphones from drivers

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A key safety panel called today for governments to ban all uses of cellphones and Internet devices by drivers in vehicles — a step far beyond what vehicle owners and automakers have been willing to take so far. Would making iPhones illegal behind the wheel make the roads safer? 

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.

But authorities have let hands-free systems flourish in the face of pushback from automakers who see car buyers paying more for tech. No state bars all cellphones today, and it's getting easier than ever to keep one hidden but stay connected. The auto industry's safety campaigns have been built around the idea that as long as a driver's hands and eyes were engaged with driving, they could stay safe while still talking.

Built-in systems allowing drivers to link their cellphones to a car's sound system have become common on inexpensive small cars. And the industry has been pushing deeper connections, with some automakers such as General Motors and Mini, letting drivers hear Facebook and Twitter updates from the road, and a few automakers have offered portable WiFi connections for vehicles.

The other problem facing a total ban: Whether it actually improves safety. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a key researcher into auto safety trends, has found no reduction in crashes yet among states than ban texting and hand-held phones. "Passing a law alone might not be enough to reduce the crash risk from distracted driving — which can involve many other activities than communicating with mobile devices," said Anne Fleming, a spokeswoman for the IIHS.

There are too many crashes like the Missouri wreck from people texting behind the wheel, and distractions of all kinds pose a danger. But advocates of turning cars into cell-free zones will need stronger arguments than they've mustered so far to convince many Americans.

Photo: Thinkstock

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