Caught in the act...After a decade of investigations into car accidents caused by distracted driving, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Tuesday called for a total ban on the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while driving, except in emergencies. That includes talking on a cell phone, talking on a hands-free device, and texting.

The NTSB’s five members unanimously agreed to this recommendation because of the large number of traffic accidents occurring because of cell phone use while driving. One accident that they cite occurred in Missouri in 2010, in which two people were killed and 35 were injured after a 19-year-old driver crashed his pickup truck. The investigation revealed that he had sent 11 text messages in the 11 minutes before his accident.

As Michael Cabanatuan writes for SFGate:

[The driver] rammed the back of a big-rig that had slowed for a construction zone. Then the pickup was hit from behind by a school bus, which was thrown into the air before it crashed down on the truck, killing the driver. A second school bus then slammed into the first school bus, killing a passenger who was in the back of the first bus.

The ban that the NTSB is calling for goes well beyond laws that now exist in some states to limit the use of cell phones while driving, but the agency has no authority to impose the restrictions it is recommending. Daniel B. Wood, a staff writer for The Christian Science Monitor, quotes Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law regarding the NTSB:

This is an expert agency which is considered important and is trying to make transportation safer, so even though it can only recommend, it will be taken very seriously. Following through devolves back on the states and what their legislatures are willing to do.

It’s amazing to me that despite the growing evidence to the contrary, people continue to think this is not dangerous.

Maya Jackson Randall writes in The Wall Street Journal that car makers and electronics companies say that digital systems in cars give drivers a way to communicate via cell phones in a hands-free way. But the Department of Transportation has said that studies show that hands-free calls are distracting to drivers. NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman told Randall, “The NTSB is taking a very strong stand on this issue because we’re [seeing] red flags when it comes to distraction, with both hand-held and hands-free.”

As Matt Richtel reports in The New York Times, the recommended ban will not please state lawmakers “who are loath to infuriate constituents who have grown accustomed to using their device behind the wheel.” But, he writes, “the recommendation may also provide cover for legislators, safety advocates and others who support such a broad-based ban.”

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said the board is concerned because cell phones are becoming more and more powerful, allowing people to email, watch movies, and play games. “Every year, new devices are being released. People are tempted to update their Facebook page, they are tempted to tweet, as if sitting at a desk. But they are driving a car,” she said.

Richtel’s article continues:

Ms. Hersman said she understood that this recommendation would be unwelcome in some circles, given the number of drivers who talk and text. But she compared distracted driving to drunken driving and even smoking, which required wholesale cultural shifts to change behavior.

‘It’s going to be very unpopular with some people,’ she said. ‘We’re not here to win a popularity contest. We’re here to do the right thing. This is a difficult recommendation, but it’s the right recommendation and it’s time.’

Richtel notes that a total ban would have a large impact on those car makers offering integrated hands-free, voice-activated systems that let drivers talk and do such things as call up their phone directory. He writes that the Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers (AAM) said it is reviewing the NTSB’s recommendations. But the AAM defended integrated systems in cars, saying, “What we do know is that digital technology has created a connected culture in the United States and it’s forever changed our society:  consumers always expect to have access to technology; so managing technology is the solution.”

NTSB Chairwoman Hersman said in the Times article: “It’s about cognitive distraction. It’s about not being engaged at the task at hand. Lives are being lost in the blink of an eye. You can’t take it back, you can’t have a do over, and you can’t rewind.”

The Times reports that Germany and Portugal already have complete bans on the use of phones by drivers.

Image by Craig Murphy, used under its Creative Commons license.