Highway safety officials from the 50 states meeting this weekend in Kansas City, Mo., will decide whether to recommend banning all cell phone use by drivers.
Such a ban would include hand-held and even hands-free devices.
"I think it's prompted by concern that, regardless of law, any type of cell phone use while driving is dangerous. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Carnegie Mellon and a whole host of other entities have shown that just because you're hands-free, there's no safety benefit to that," says Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. More than 5,000 highway deaths were attributed to distracted driving last year.
Adoption of the resolution wouldn't be binding; each state legislature would need to act. But there is clearly some momentum behind the notion of banning or restricting cell phone use in cars. Eight states and the District of Columbia now ban hand-held cell phone use; 30 states ban texting while driving.
Automakers say they're doing what they can to keep drivers' hands on the wheel. Louis Tijerina, a senior technical specialist with Ford, says the company's onboard computer system called SYNC is aimed at helping drivers avoid fiddling with navigation and music systems.
Distracted Driving Laws By State
For more details on state laws regarding cell phone use, go to Distraction.gov.
"Instead of having to key in a destination, you can speak a destination. Instead of trying to find a specific song on your iPod by turning the thumbwheel, you simply speak it. Instead of trying to scroll down to a particular person in your phone book, you simply state the person’s name," Tijerina says.
Similar systems are offered by other automakers. The industry is lobbying against outlawing hands-free cell phone use.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made distracted driving his signature issue, mused to reporters last week at the second summit on distracted driving that perhaps cell phone boxes should carry warning labels similar to cigarette packages.
And he also called out auto manufacturers for offering technology that LaHood says distracts drivers.
"In recent days and weeks, we've seen news stories about carmakers adding technology in vehicles that lets drivers update Facebook, surf the Web or do any number of other things instead of driving safely," LaHood says. "But facts are facts: Features that pull drivers' hands, eyes and attention away from the road are distractions. Period."
Advocates of the bans are also fighting another battle. Studies in two states have shown that when such bans are actively enforced by police, cell phone use declines. But many states lack the resources to actively enforce a cell phone ban. Legislation before Congress would provide states more funding but is unlikely to come to a vote in the remainder of this session.