National ban worth pursuing

By Walt Braun

It probably was a matter of time before the National Traffic Safety Board recommended a nationwide ban on the use of all portable electronic devices by drivers. Now that the agency has acted, it will be interesting to see whether it makes a difference.

We’ve long been concerned about the hazards of driving while texting and even driving while talking on hand-held phones. Manhattan’s prohibition, which includes phone calls as well as texting, is a good one, and goes further than Kansas law and the laws in most states.

We’re less convinced that a ban on hands-free cell phones is necessary, however. Although there is ample evidence that driving while talking on a hand-held phone causes or contributes to traffic accidents, the evidence on hands-free devices is less clear. What’s more, the NTSB sends a mixed message in extending its recommended ban to hands-free cell phones except in automobiles in which hands-free phones are installed by manufacturers.

While conversations on hands-free cell phones can be distracting for drivers, it’s difficult to see how they can be more distracting than conversations with other occupants in the vehicle. There’s no discussion of banning those conversations, nor should there be, even though they pose distractions that could, and almost certainly have, contributed to accidents and even fatalities.

The NTSB has no regulatory authority, but states generally pay attention to its recommendations, and this latest recommendation was unanimous. Many states are ahead of those recommendations; 35 already ban texting while driving, 30 states ban cell phone use by younger drivers and nine states ban drivers from using hand-held phones.

And no wonder. Not only do many drivers make and receive phone calls, but according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, more than one in six send text messages and almost half of drivers under age 25 do so. And given that more than 3,000 traffic fatalities in 2010 — a year in which traffic fatalities fell to their lowest point since 1949 — were caused by distracted drivers, attention to cell phone use is more than appropriate.

Cell phone use, and particularly texting, are “becoming the new DUI,” according to Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB board. “It’s becoming an epidemic.”

It’s not only an epidemic we know how to cure, it’s an epidemic we know how to prevent.

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