NTSB Recommends Cell Phone Ban For Drivers

The Associated Press reports that the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that “states should ban all driver use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices, except in emergencies.” 

While an earlier CNN report said the restriction would not apply to hands-free devices, the AP and Bloomberg News both say that it would.  The Associated Press recounts the horrific incident that led to the proposed ban:

The board made the recommendation in connection with a deadly highway pileup in Missouri last year. The board said the initial collision in the accident near Gray Summit, Mo., was caused by the inattention of a 19 year-old-pickup driver who sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes immediately before the crash.

The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, collided into the back of a tractor truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus that overrode the smaller vehicle. A second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus.

The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the school buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured in the Aug. 5, 2010, accident near Gray Summit, Mo.

About 50 students, mostly members of a high school band from St. James, Mo., were on the buses heading to the Six Flags St. Louis amusement park.

The accident is a “big red flag for all drivers,” NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said at a meeting to determine the cause of the accident and make safety recommendations.

It’s not possible to know from cell phone records if the driver was typing, reaching for the phone or reading a text at the time of the crash, but it’s clear he was manually, cognitively and visually distracted, she said.

“Driving was not his only priority,” Hersman said. “No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.”

(Emphases mine.)  Some other dumbass uses of electronic devices were on the NTSB’s mind as well:

In the last few years the board has investigated a commuter rail accident that killed 25 people in California in which the train engineer was texting; a fatal marine accident in Philadelphia in which a tugboat pilot was talking on his cellphone and using a laptop; and a Northwest Airlines flight that flew more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops.

The board has previously recommended bans on texting and cell phone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and beginning drivers, but it has stopped short of calling for a ban on the use of the devices by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.

According to Bloomberg News, the ban would exempt “systems built into cars, like GM’s OnStar, and global positioning systems,” but it would apply to phones with “headsets or portable speakers.”  The NTSB can’t impose these restrictions on its own – it makes recommendations to the states, which individually regulate driver behavior.

There are a lot of questions to be asked about the NTSB’s recommendations, but first and foremost, let me say for the record that people who send text messages while driving are imbeciles

Some minimal degree of judgment and responsibility should be necessary to operate a motor vehicle, an activity the government properly regulates because public safety is at stake.  The road and highway network is a complex system that requires adherence to the rules by all users, in order to function efficiently and safely.  Someone who thinks they can thumb out a quick text message while hurtling along at highway speed, or navigating through traffic, is failing a very basic intelligence test for operating a powerful and dangerous machine.

The Associated Press relates some amazing statistics:

About two out of 10 American drivers overall — and half of drivers between 21 and 24 — say they’ve thumbed messages or emailed from the driver’s seat, according to a survey of more than 6,000 drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And what’s more, many drivers don’t think it’s dangerous when they do it — only when others do, the survey found.

At any given moment last year on America’s streets and highways, nearly 1 in every 100 car drivers was texting, emailing, surfing the Web or otherwise using a handheld electronic device, the safety administration said. And those activities spiked 50 percent over the previous year.

Based on personal observation, a lot of this seems to be going on at stop lights, which have become little Internet cafes.  Drivers failing to respond to light changes are noticeably more common.  The idea that anyone needs to be told not to type messages, or surf the Web, while driving is absolutely mind-blowing.

Having said that, some aspects of the NTSB recommendation are problematic.  Why ban hands-free devices except for the built-in variety?  Presumably the board feels that dashboard-mounted systems are easier to manipulate without distraction than hand-held devices, but most phones have voice-activated controls now.  A lot of them work quite well as speakerphones while sitting in dashboard receptacles. 

What about in-dash systems linked to Bluetooth headsets?  Are the cops supposed to pull over everyone wearing a headset, and wave them on with apologies if they see it’s linked to a built-in computer?  Some degree of respect for the judgment of drivers is necessary.  Drivers can get distracted by people sitting in the car with them, or loud music playing from dashboard radios, and we can’t very well regulate those things away. 

The notion of exempting GPS systems is also curious, because many of them physically resemble smartphones or small tablet computers.  Many smartphones are, in turn, capable of serving as GPS navigators.  How are the police supposed to know the difference?  They might require dashboard mounts for all such devices, but that sort of distinction seems difficult to enforce, especially when the new restrictions are meant to apply only to drivers. 

For the record, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says he is concerned about built-in systems like OnStar.  Would a government ban require disabling them somehow?  LaHood famously speculated, early in the Obama Administration, about requiring vehicle owners to install jamming devices the government could use to block cell-phone traffic.  A law that forces everyone to tear out their in-dash computer systems would be equally onerous, particularly since many vehicle functions beyond communications and GPS are routed through those built-in computer screens in some models.

Also, since the regulations in question are imposed by state governments, driving between states could get a lot more complicated.  What if, say, Florida imposes strict bans on some electronic devices, but Georgia does not?  It sounds like a lot of signs would need to go up at the borders, and a lot of traffic cops would be needed to implement enforcement.

It’s a tough call, because massive regulatory schemes come with enormous costs and unforeseen consequences, and a degree of respect for individual judgment by the government is appropriate.  So, apparently, is the recognition that a terrifying percentage of drivers are literally too stupid to live.