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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Now, onto one of the most dangerous things people do with cell phones: talking or texting while driving. States have long sought to restrict cell phone use by drivers, but it turns out that's a hard habit to break. As the New Year begins, several states are toughening their restrictions. Still, stricter rules may not be able to keep up with technological advances. There is at least one new way to use your phone while you drive, but is it any safer?

Tim Fitzsimons reports.

TIM FITZSIMONS, BYLINE: On December 13th, the National Transportation Safety Board took an unprecedented step and recommended that all states enact total bans on driver cell phone use. Why? NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said the board came to the conclusion after a decade of researching accidents connected to distraction.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: It's really the cognitive distraction, the brain being engaged in another activity, that's dividing the driver's attention from the task at hand that's the problem.

FITZSIMONS: The NTSB meeting was in response to a 2010 accident in Gray Summit, Missouri.

(SOUNDBITE OF A NEWS CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: First on Fox tonight, a deadly wreck on Interstate 44. The scene, absolutely horrific.

FITZSIMONS: As it turns out, the teen who caused the crash sent and received 11 texts in the 11 minutes before he plowed into a tractor-trailer and set off a massive chain reaction that killed two and injured 38.

Despite the risks, millions of drivers text while behind the wheel. In a June 2010 Pew Research Center poll, more than one-in-four Americans said they'd done it. And while statistics specifically connecting collisions to cell phone use vary widely, the Pew poll indicated that one-in-six cell phone-owning adults admitted to being so distracted by their phone while driving that they bumped into something - or somebody - with their car.

And now there's one more way to use your phone while your hands are on the wheel.

SIRI: Hello, my name is Siri.

FITZSIMONS: Siri is Apple's courteous robot assistant. She responds to voice commands and can send and read text messages for you.

In a video Apple made to promote the latest iPhone, a man is seen in his car using his voice to perform a variety of tasks.

(SOUNDBITE OF AN APPLE PROMO VIDEO)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: What's the traffic like around here?

SIRI: Here's the traffic.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Text my wife I'm going to be 30 minutes late.

FITZSIMONS: But does keeping your hands on the wheel while driving make texting any safer? A March 2010 study by the National Safety Council concluded that hands-free phone technology is still dangerous, because your mind is somewhere else.

Even though more than 30 states have banned or restricted cell use, it hasn't been easy to convince drivers to stop. Oregon, Nevada and North Dakota enacted new laws on January 1st, and many states have had to revisit bans after drivers found loopholes.

JONATHAN ADKINS: Unfortunately, technology is advancing a lot faster than our laws. You know, four or five years ago, we didn't really even know much about texting.

FITZSIMONS: That's Jonathan Adkins, communications director for the Governors' Highway Safety Association. He doesn't expect a total ban on driver phone use any time soon. Instead, he says, it's all about changing habits.

ADKINS: We want to make this like drunk driving where, you know, you don't walk into a party and casually say that you were drunk behind the wheel. People will look at you like you're insane.

FITZSIMONS: Technology is catching up on the side of safety, as well. Researchers at Rutgers University have explored a way to detect driver use of a cell phone with 95 percent accuracy. But implementing that is a ways off.

In the meantime, Adkins has a suggestion.

ADKINS: The best scenario is simply to turn your phone off while you drive. It's more peaceful. It's more restful. And it's safer.

FITZSIMONS: For NPR News, I'm Tim Fitzsimons in Washington.

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