The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board describes mobile-phone use in cars as a public-health epidemic on the scale of smoking or drunk driving. Analysts said it may be too ingrained to stop.
The board yesterday recommended all 50 states ban phone use by drivers after finishing its probe into a Missouri chain-reaction crash caused by a 19-year-old driver who sent or received 11 text messages in the 13 minutes before impact.
The “watershed recommendation,” as NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman called it, is broader than its many targeted recommendations dating to a 2003 call for laws to limit cell-phone calls for beginning drivers. The new recommendation makes no exception for hands-free use, as is contained in every state law restricting mobile calling or texting, Hersman said.
“This is a difficult issue for us as a society,” she told reporters. “But just like seat belts, smoking and drunk driving, it’s about changing attitudes and changing the level of acceptance.
‘‘We know this recommendation is going to be very unpopular with some people,’’ she said. ‘‘We’re not here to win a popularity contest. We’re here to do the right thing.”
The NTSB recommends safety improvements to U.S. and state agencies. It can’t make rules or enforce them.
Banning use of phones nationwide would be next to impossible with connectivity so built into people’s routines, said Jesse Toprak, an automotive analyst with TrueCar.com, a Santa Monica, California-based website that tracks industry trends.
“We need to balance the realities of peoples’ lives with safety,” Toprak said. “Is it enforceable? How do you know somebody is not talking to a passenger or talking to themselves while driving?”
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.
U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has said motorists are distracted by any use of mobile phones while driving, including hands-free calls.
“Distracted driving is not only dangerous, deaths and injuries from this reckless practice are preventable,” LaHood said in a statement yesterday. “There’s no call or text message that’s so important that it can’t wait.”
LaHood, who has campaigned against texting and talking on the phone while driving, has said his concerns extend to built-in information and entertainment systems such as General Motors Co. ’s OnStar or Ford Motor Co.’s Sync. Those systems and global positioning devices wouldn’t be affected by the recommended ban, Hersman said.
LaHood has met with auto manufacturers over the past year to stress the importance of measures to counter distracted driving, Justin Nisly, a Transportation Department spokesman, said in an e-mail.
“DOT is obviously concerned about the potential for new in-car technologies like Sync and OnStar to distract drivers from the road,” Nisly said. “NHTSA is currently in the process of formulating research and data-driven anti-distraction guidelines for the auto manufacturers which we hope to issue soon.”
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has found that laws banning handheld phone use or texting didn’t reduce crashes. Ten states and the District of Columbia ban talking on a handheld mobile phone while driving, and 35 states and the District ban texting while driving for all drivers, according to the insurance group.
In a September 2010 study, the Arlington, Virginia-based research group found that accident rates increased after texting bans in three of four states studied took effect. The IIHS, whose members include insurance companies, has criticized LaHood for focusing on distracted-driving laws rather than highway-safety changes it says could save more lives.
“It’s clear from analysis of insurance data that state laws banning phone use are not the be all, end all to address this problem,” Anne Fleming, an institute spokeswoman, said in a phone interview.
In July, the Governors Highway Safety Association urged states to hold off on banning 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.”
CTIA-The Wireless Association, a Washington-based trade group representing wireless companies like AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., 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.”
Sprint Nextel Corp. supports bans on texting and emailing while driving, said Crystal Davis, a spokeswoman for the Overland Park, Kansas-based company.
“Future legislation adopted by the states should promote good driving habits and also help improve overall driving behavior,” Davis said.
Automakers are trying to integrate technology into vehicles so drivers keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel, Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said in an e-mail.
“Digital technology has created a connected culture in the United States and it’s forever changed our society,” Newton said. “Consumers always expect to have access to technology, so managing technology is the solution.”
In 2001, New York became the first state to ban talking on a cell phone while driving without a hands-free device. It’s too early to say if the state will adopt the NTSB’s recommendations, Nick Cantiello, a spokesman for the New York Department of Motor Vehicles, said in a telephone interview.
“We would consider anything that would help make the roads safer, but we haven’t analyzed the recommendations yet,” Cantiello said.
Policies 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.
Companies that make devices to enable hands-free calling and those that make portable navigation systems may be harmed by bans on all portable electronic use in cars, Toprak said.
Winners from a ban would include suppliers of systems like Sync and Hyundai Motor Co.’s Blue Link, and providers of voice-recognition technology, which include Nuance Communications Inc., as drivers would need integrated telecommunications systems to keep talking in the car, he said.
“There’s going to be huge opportunity to sell any telematics devices that would let you function in your car hands free,” Toprak said in a phone interview.
Telecommunications companies probably won’t be harmed as they make more money from data services than voice, said Jeff Silva, a Washington-based policy analyst for Medley Global Advisors LLC.
“I wouldn’t expect a major impact,” he said in a phone interview. “Yes, there’s a lot of talking on the phone, but really a lot of the revenues in the wireless industry are coming from data, not really the voice services.”
And, Silva said, many drivers would ignore a ban anyway.
“Whether people abide by it is a whole other thing,” he said. “Enforcing such a ban is very, very difficult, so a lot of people will just ignore it and take their chances.”