Should Drivers Hang Up? State Officials To Weigh In Highway safety officials are considering whether to recommend banning all cell phone use by drivers. Such a ban would include hand-held and hands-free devices. Eight states and the District of Columbia now ban hand-held cell phone use; 30 states ban texting while driving.

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Should Drivers Hang Up? State Officials To Weigh In

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Last year, more than 5,000 highway deaths were attributed to distracted driving. This weekend, highway safety officials from each of the 50 states are meeting in Kansas City. Among the items on their agenda is whether to recommend banning all cell phone use by drivers. That would include handheld and hands-free devices. The proposal comes after Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood held the second distracted driving summit in Washington this past week.

NPR's Brian Naylor has more.

(Soundbite of a roadway)

BRIAN NAYLOR: I'm standing on a busy street corner in Washington, D.C., actually just down the block from NPR's headquarters. But just to prove the point you don't need to go very far to find someone driving and talking on a cell phone at the same time, there's a guy over there in a Volvo, one hand on the wheel the other on his cell phone; a woman trying to make a left hand-turn through this crosswalk, her cell phone is in her hand.

This is in a city where handheld cell phone use is already against the law. The Governors Highway Safety Association is considering a further step: proposing banning all cell phone use.

Jonathan Adkins is a spokesman for the GHSA.

Mr. JONATHAN ADKINS (Spokesman, GHSA): I think it's prompted by the concern that regardless of the law in any state, any type of cell phone use while driving is dangerous. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and Carnegie Melon University, and a whole host of other entities have shown that - that just because your hands-free, there's no safety benefit to that.

NAYLOR: Adoption of the resolution by the highway safety group wouldn't be binding; each state legislature would need to act. But there's clearly some momentum behind the notion of banning or restricting cell phone use in cars. Eight states and the District of Columbia now ban handheld 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 is a senior technical specialist with Ford. He says the company's onboard computer system, called SYNC, is aimed at helping drivers avoid fiddling with navigation and music systems.

Dr. LOUIS TIJERINA (Senior Technical Specialist, Ford): 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 phonebook, you simply state the person's name.

NAYLOR: 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 this past week that perhaps cell phone boxes should carry warning labels, similar to cigarette packages. And he also called out automakers for offering technology that LaHood says distracts drivers.

Secretary RAY LAHOOD (Department of Transportation): 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 other number of things instead of driving safely. But facts are facts. Features that pull drivers' hands, eyes and attention away from the road are distractions, period.

NAYLOR: Advocates of the bans are also fighting another battle. Studies in two states have shown 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 it's unlikely to come to a vote in the remainder of this session.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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