NTSB Recommends Cell Phone Ban For Drivers

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The National Transportation Safety Board is advising against cell phone use — and even using hands-free devices — while driving. But even some cell phone safety advocates think the recommendation goes too far.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

A federal proposal to ban all texting or talking while driving is drawing audible gasps around the country. The National Transportation Safety Board is urging states to outlaw even hands-free devices, saying they're simply too dangerous.

NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: They may or may not be in their cars, but there are definitely a lot of people tweeting, texting and talking today about the sweeping ban being proposed by NTSB chair, Deborah Hersman.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: We know that this is going to be very unpopular with some people, but we're not here to win a popularity contest. We're here to do the right thing.

SMITH: Thirty-four states already ban texting while driving. Nine states ban calling on a handheld phone. None go so far as to ban even hands-free calls, but Hersman says a decade of investigating crashes has convinced the agency that even just talking hands-free is a dangerous distraction and should be banned.

HERSMAN: Ask the family members. They will tell you that there have been thousands of deaths that didn't need to happen.

ROB REYNOLDS: We think that it's something that is long overdue and we know that if it were put in place it would save lives.

SMITH: Rob Reynolds' oldest daughter Cady was killed by a distracted driver in 2007. He now runs FocusDriven, a group that believes the only way to drive safely is to drive cell-free. But there are others who see an all-out ban as too drastic. Jeff Larson with the Safe Roads Alliance in Massachusetts says focus should be on getting more states to ban handheld calls. If not, he says, police can't even enforce the laws against texting.

JEFF LARSON: Right now, if you're trying to text on your phone, you can just say, I was dialing a phone number and that's not technically texting. You're allowed to do that. We need to pass a hands-free law, which means that if you're manipulating your phone and police see it, you can get a ticket.

SMITH: Jerry Cibley says a hands-free law might have saved his son, Jordan, who was 18 when he dropped his cell phone on the floor of his car and crashed into a tree trying to pick it up. But Cibley says the argument that even hands-free talking is distracting and needs to be banned is silly.

JERRY CIBLEY: Let's ban car radios, too. I think that would be a good idea. And let's ban passengers and let's ban children. I mean, one of the biggest distractions are children in the backseats. We're not going to outlaw people from having their children.

SMITH: Instead, Cibley says, we require car seats and we use technology to make car seats as safe as possible. There are already devices that can block or limit distracted driving. For example, if a cell phone is determined through GPS to be in a moving vehicle, it could be automatically shut off.

Or Richard Martin at Rutgers University is working on software that would enable a more surgical strike by figuring out whether a phone is being used by a driver or a passenger.

RICHARD MARTIN: The technology's definitely there to bring a hammer down and disable all phone usage or you could be a little more subtle and try to tie it with more environmental factors like how you're driving the vehicle, like weaving, for example, to determine if you should get cut off or something like that.

SMITH: Car makers are developing their own systems; for example, enabling any phone to be operated with voice commands. But they oppose the NTSB's call for an all-out ban. As one of them put it, it's like Prohibition; it's unrealistic and it won't work.

Tovia Smith, NPR News.

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