NTSB recommends ban on driver cell phone use

In this 2011 file photo, texting while driving increased 50 percent last year and two out of 10 drivers say they've sent text messages or emails while behind the wheel despite a rush by states to ban the practice, said the National Traffic Safety Administration. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, File)

In this 2011 file photo, texting while driving increased 50 percent last year and two out of 10 drivers say they've sent text messages or emails while behind the wheel despite a rush by states to ban the practice, said the National Traffic Safety Administration. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach, File)

In this Aug. 5, 2010 file photo, a rescue worker is seen at the scene of an accident involving two school buses, a tractor-trailer and another passenger vehicle, near Gray Summit, Mo. Federal safety investigators say a 19-year-old driver was texting at the time his pickup truck, two school buses and other vehicles collided in a deadly pileup on an interstate highway in Missouri last year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

In this Aug. 5, 2010 file photo, a rescue worker is seen at the scene of an accident involving two school buses, a tractor-trailer and another passenger vehicle, near Gray Summit, Mo. Federal safety investigators say a 19-year-old driver was texting at the time his pickup truck, two school buses and other vehicles collided in a deadly pileup on an interstate highway in Missouri last year. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson, File)

Texts, maps, apps — if you’re driving, the National Transportation Safety Board wants to ban it all.

The national agency Tuesday called on legislators to restrict the use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices for drivers, except in emergencies.

The recommendation, unanimously agreed to by the five-member board, applies to both hands-free and hand-held phones and significantly exceeds any existing state laws restricting texting and cellphone use behind the wheel.

The move is long overdue, said Jay Anderson, executive director of Stay Alive ... Just Drive, a Lee County organization that educates on distracted driving.

“We need to make this behavior behind the wheel socially unacceptable, like we did with impaired driving,” Anderson said.

The board made the recommendation in connection with a deadly highway pileup in Missouri last year. The board said the initial collision in the accident near Gray Summit, Mo., was caused by the inattention of a 19 year-old-pickup driver who sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes immediately before the crash.

The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, collided into the back of a tractor truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus that overrode the smaller vehicle. A second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus.

The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the school buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured in the Aug. 5, 2010, accident near Gray Summit, Mo.

About 50 students, mostly members of a high school band from St. James, Mo., were on the buses heading to the Six Flags St. Louis amusement park.

The accident is a “big red flag for all drivers,” NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said at a meeting to determine the cause of the accident and make safety recommendations.

It’s not possible to know from cellphone records if the driver was typing, reaching for the phone or reading a text at the time of the crash, but it’s clear he was manually, cognitively and visually distracted, she said.

“Driving was not his only priority,” Hersman said. “No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.”

A 2009 study by Car and Driver magazine concluded that texting was more likely to impair driving than being legally drunk.

Earlier this month, Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk teamed with professional race car driver Michael Cenzi and launched the “Stay Focused: Don’t Text and Drive” campaign “to bring awareness, education and the pursuit of legislation for a ban on texting.” The NTSB report reinforces the agency’s direction and the recommendations Sheriff’s Office officials are planning to make to local legislators to ban texting while driving statewide, Rambosk said.

“We continue to get requests from citizens at our ... homeowners meetings that texting and driving is still a No.1 issue in this county,” Rambosk said. “They’ve asked us to continue to work on that, so we are.”

Lee County Sheriff Mike Scott declined to comment until any legislation is passed.

The NTSB is expected to recommend new restrictions on driver use of electronic devices behind the wheel. While the NTSB doesn’t have the power to impose restrictions, it’s recommendations carry significant weight with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers.

Missouri had a law banning drivers under 21 years old from texting while driving at the time of the crash, but wasn’t aggressively enforcing the ban, board member Robert Sumwalt said.

“Without the enforcement, the laws don’t mean a whole lot,” he said.

When developing legislation, lawmakers will have to give some thought to the evidence needed to support a texting and driving citation, Rambosk said.

“It’s not going to be as simple as witnessing a citation on the road when you’re seeing the whole car,” he said.

Investigators are seeing texting, cellphone calls and other distracting behavior by operators in accidents across all modes of transportation with increasing frequency. It has become routine for investigators to immediately request the preservation of cellphone and texting records when they launch an investigation.

In the last few years the board has investigated a commuter rail accident that killed 25 people in California in which the train engineer was texting; a fatal marine accident in Philadelphia in which a tugboat pilot was talking on his cellphone and using a laptop; and a Northwest Airlines flight that flew more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops.

The board has previously recommended bans on texting and cellphone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and beginning drivers, but it has stopped short of calling for a ban on the use of the devices by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.

The problem of texting while driving is getting worse despite a rush by states to ban the practice, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week. In November, Pennsylvania became the 35th state to forbid texting while driving.

About two out of 10 American drivers overall — and half of drivers between 21 and 24 — say they’ve thumbed messages or emailed from the driver’s seat, according to a survey of more than 6,000 drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

And what’s more, many drivers don’t think it’s dangerous when they do it — only when others do, the survey found.

Teen drivers are more likely than other age groups to be involved in a fatal crash where distraction is reported.

In January, Stay Alive ... Just Drive will bring its distracted driving program to Collier County for the first time, with a series of classes at Palmetto Ridge High School.

But using phones to call, text, check email, or look up the news isn’t limited to teens, Anderson said, and that needs to be taken into consideration in education initiatives.

“It’s adults 35 and over that are the biggest users of (smartphones),” he said. “You have all these experienced drivers who have now adopted this technology,”

“This behavior,” Anderson added, “is undoubtedly on track to continue to kill more people behind the wheel.”

Staff writer Victoria Macchi and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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