NTSB Recommends Total Ban on Drivers' Use of Distracting Devices

On Dec. 13, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made a big move: It rallied for a complete ban of all calling, texting, Web browsing and other activities performed on any type of personal electric device while behind the wheel – a ban that ideally would apply to every driver in the country.

Distracted driving has been a hot-button topic in recent years, but NTSB's recommendation represents the first call from a government agency for a comprehensive, nationwide ban of using electronic devices while driving.

The recommendation calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges use of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.

David Strayer, Ph.D., a distracting driving researcher and the director of the University of Utah's Applied Cognition Lab, told EHS Today that he thinks NTSB’s recommendations "are spot on." He pointed out that these recommendations are consistent with current research as well as findings and recommendations from the National Safety Council, which in recent years has worked to raise awareness about the dangers of distracted driving.

"So now you have the National Transportation Safety Board, which is a government agency, and the National Safety Council, which is a private safety organization, both coming up with pretty much the exact same recommendations … that talking on a phone, or texting, or using GPS, or looking at your screen or using Facebook are significant distractions that are increasing crash risk," Strayer said.

According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents. In the last 2 decades, there has been exponential growth in the use of cell phones and personal electronic devices. Globally, there are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers or 77 percent of the world population. In the United States, that percentage is even higher – it exceeds 100 percent.

"It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman.

The Cost of Distraction

NTSB's announcement came after its Dec. 13 board meeting, which convened to discuss the Aug. 5, 2010 multi-vehicle highway accident in Gray Summit, Mo. On a section of Interstate 44, a pickup truck ran into the back of a truck-tractor that had slowed due to an active construction zone. A school bus then struck the pickup truck and, in turn, was hit by a second school bus. Two people died and 38 others were injured in this accident.

NTSB investigated and determined that the pickup driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the accident. The last text was received moments before the pickup struck the truck-tractor.

While this was the most recent distracted accident the board investigated, NTSB reeled off a host of distracted driving-caused accidents and fatalities it investigated. To learn more about some of these incidents, download the PDF of NTSB’s distracted driving fact sheet.

Individual states will make their own decisions about banning distracted driving behaviors. Some states currently have legislation addressing specific aspects of distracted driving, such as outlawing texting while driving or allowing hands-free devices but not handheld cell phones while driving. NTSB's recommendations, however, encompass a comprehensive ban of all distracted driving activities.

"You’ll notice the ban was a recommendation prohibiting all that use. That’s actually based on sound science. The data that’s out there shows that handheld and hands-free cell phones produce the same impairment," Strayer pointed out.

Hersman stressed that the time to curb dangerous distracted driving behavior is now. "No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life," she said.

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