Ban on Cell-Phone Use, Texting While Driving Sought by NTSB

U.S. drivers couldn’t send text messages or use mobile phones -- even with headsets or portable speakers -- under a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board recommendation aimed at preventing distracted-driving crashes.

“Too many people are texting, talking and driving at the same time,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said at a hearing in Washington today. “It’s time to put a stop to distraction. No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.”

Systems built into cars, like General Motors Co. (GM)’s OnStar, and global positioning systems wouldn’t be affected by the ban, said Kelly Nantel, an NTSB spokeswoman. The NTSB recommends safety improvements for U.S. and state agencies to act upon; it can’t implement them itself.

The board strengthened its anti-phone stance after completing its investigation into an August 2010 crash in Gray Summit, Missouri, in which a 19-year-old GMC Sierra pickup driver sent or received 11 text messages in a 13-minute stretch before plowing into the back of a tractor-trailer. Two school buses collided with the stopped trucks. The pickup driver and one bus passenger perished in the crash. The truck driver and 37 other people were injured.

Last year, 3,092 deaths, or 9.4 percent of road fatalities, were related to driver distraction, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Dec. 8.

The agency said it has changed the way it tallies distracted-driving crashes. Previously, just having a phone in the car could result in an accident being categorized as affected by distracted driving. With the new method, only accidents involving talking on a mobile phone or sending text messages are counted.

Regulation Debate

Safety regulators have been debating how much to regulate drivers’ cell-phone use for the past decade. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he believes motorists are distracted by any use of mobile phones while driving, including hands-free calls.

LaHood, whose campaign against texting and talking on the phone while driving has led to restrictions in 30 states, has said his concerns extend to vehicle information and entertainment systems such as OnStar or Ford Motor Co. (F)’s Sync.

Each State

The NTSB’s recommendation would have to be adopted separately by each U.S. state, since states have authority to regulate driver behavior. States should adopt electronic-device bans, then back up the laws with aggressive enforcement as they have with drunk driving and seat-belt use, Hersman said.

Today’s action is a “watershed recommendation,” Hersman said.

The NTSB asked mobile-phone makers to work on technology to block a driver’s calls and messages while the vehicle is moving. The safety board wants to work with the industry, Hersman told reporters at a news conference.

CTIA-The Wireless Association, a trade group representing wireless companies like AT&T Inc. (T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ), said it supports a ban on texting. The industry is deferring to state and local lawmakers on whether to pass laws restricting phone calls, Steve Largent, CTIA’s chief executive officer, said in an e-mailed statement.

The group encourages companies to develop affordable tools that are “consumer-friendly,” Largent said. “The industry constantly produces new products and services, including those that can disable the driver’s mobile device.”

Trucks, Buses

Fatal accidents caused by distracted operators have increased in all modes of transportation, Hersman said. That includes planes, trains, boats, trucks, buses and private cars and trucks, she said.

The use of phones and e-mail by operators is so prevalent that securing call records and the devices themselves is one of the first steps investigators now take after accidents, she said.

The NTSB called for a ban on mobile phones for truck and bus drivers in September, when Hersman said distracted driving was “increasingly prevalent, exacerbating the danger we encounter daily on our roadways.”

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which regulates trucking and bus companies, banned hand-held cell phones for drivers operating commercial vehicles last month. It banned texting for commercial drivers in January 2010.

In July, the Governors Highway Safety Association urged states to hold off on enacting bans on drivers’ use of handheld mobile phones, saying there wasn’t enough data about whether such prohibitions prevent crashes.

“We haven’t yet supported a total ban,” Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Washington-based group of state highway regulators, said in an e-mail. “We think the NTSB action could very well be a game-changer, however. States aren’t ready to enact full bans but this will certainly get the conversation started.”

To contact the reporters on this story: Jeff Plungis in Washington at jplungis@bloomberg.net; Angela Greiling Keane in Washington at agreilingkea@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bernard Kohn at bkohn2@bloomberg.net

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