“Shocking” and “heavy-handed.”
That is how some observers reacted last week to a recommendation by a federal government agency to ban the use of mobile phones and other personal electronic devices while Americans are driving.
Horace Cooper, an adjunct fellow with the National Center for Public Policy Research, characterized the National Transportation Safety Board recommendation as a “remarkably heavy-handed action.” The NTSB on Tuesday recommended that all 50 states and the District of Columbia ban the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers.
“An absolute ban on all cell phone use is more than a wrongheaded intrusion on our freedom as it implies adults aren’t careful enough to make responsible decisions regarding cell phone use and driving it also will be costly to many Americans and dangerous for some,” Cooper wrote.
The reason for the recommendation, however, is simple and compelling: Drivers get distracted with devices like smartphones and endanger the public. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that more than 3,000 people died last year in accidents that were related to distractions.
“It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving,” NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement. “No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.”
Thirty-eight states already have passed legislation that regulates cell-phone use on the roads, according to Matt Howard, co-founder and CEO of ZoomSafer, a provider of software to promote safe and hands-free use of mobile phones while driving. Yet Howard described the NTSB’s recommendation as “shocking.”
“Never in the history of this debate” at the regulatory or legislative level had “anyone suggested the possibility of an outright ban or cell phones,” said Howard last week in an interview. “It was never even brought up.”
Still, the feds have been working diligently to address the sometimes fatal problem of drivers who are distracted by their iPhones, BlackBerrys, Android-powered smartphones and other gadgets. Last month, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a final rule that prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating their vehicles.
There’s also legislation pending in the U.S. Senate. A bill introduced by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) would instruct LaHood to withhold one-fourth of a state’s federal highway funding if the state does not impose a ban on texting, according to Cooper of the National Center for Public Policy Research. Separate legislation sponsored by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) would give grants to states that enact a law to address distracted driving, Cooper said.
The problem with an outright nationwide ban is that Americans have come to rely increasingly on their mobile phones for business and personal reasons. Ninety million people in the United States owned smartphones during the three months ending in October, comScore reported, and a whopping 83 percent of American adults own some kind of cell phone, according to The Pew Research Center.
But text messages, phone calls and the powerful capabilities of smartphones like gaming and Web browsing can easily distract a driver. The Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found last year that one in four American adults (27 percent) reported texting while driving. Nearly half (49 percent) of adults said they were passengers in a car when a driver was sending or receiving text messages on their phones.
The consequences of such behavior can prove deadly. An NTSB investigation into a fatal multiple-automobile and bus accident that killed two people and injured 38 others found that the driver who caused the calamity had sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the ordeal.
In 2009, more than five thousand people died in crashes involving a distracted driver, according to the Transportation Department; another 448,000 were hurt in crashes related to such incidents.
Despite the NTSB’s rationale for a nationwide ban, the agency is facing ample criticism. Walter Olson, a senior fellow with the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank, claims the NTSB misled the public on the number of deaths caused by distracted drivers. He refers to a column by the Washington Examiner, which said that only 995 deaths resulted from cell phone distractions last year.
“There would be zero traffic fatalities if we simply banned cars,” wrote Washington Examiner contributor Mona Charen, who pointed out that the number of car accident fatalities has been dropping for decades. “But the freedom and conveniences are seen to outweigh the cost in lost lives. Preventing the (perhaps) three percent of traffic fatalities caused by cell phones is nanny statism at its worst.”
However, many Americans, specifically the elderly, may be on board with a nationwide ban. A poll by Poll Position found that people support the NTSB’s recommendation by a 49 to 44 percent margin. Sixty percent of the elderly endorse the ban, although that’s not terribly surprising given that working Americans and younger folks tend to be more dependent on their wireless gadgets.