Federal board wants cellphone ban for drivers. What happens next?

The NTSB wants states to ban drivers from using cellphones – handheld or hands-free. But it can't impose any laws or restrictions. That's up to lawmakers, who may or may not agree.

Zach White/Havre Daily News/AP/File
A sign in Havre, Mont., notifies drivers of the city's handheld cellphone ban, which took effect in October. The NTSB wants states to go further, banning all cellphone use by drivers.

The federal agency charged with overseeing transportation safety recommended Tuesday that US states should forbid the use of all cellphones and other portable electronic devices by drivers.

The five-member, National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) agreed unanimously to the recommendation as the number of accidents attributed to cellphone use rises. Perhaps the most dramatic was a fatal highway pileup in Missouri in 2010, in which a 19-year-old driver sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes before the crash. 

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

The restrictions would exceed any existing state laws that limit drivers' cellphone use – for texting, web-surfing, or talking – because they would apply to both hands-free and handheld devices. The board has no power to impose restrictions, however, meaning that any new rules would have to come from states, Congress, or federal regulators. But the NTSB is seen as being very influential.

“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,” says Carl Tobias, professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. “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,” Professor Tobias says.

The number of accidents in which texting and cellphone calls were a contributing factor has increased, he says.

A Sept. 12, 2008, Metrolink collision with a freight train that killed 25 people and injured 135 in Los Angeles was perhaps the first high-profile cellphone-linked accident. After that, a tugboat pilot in Philadelphia was killed while talking on his cellphone and using a laptop. More recently, a Northwest Airlines flight flew more than 100 miles past its destination while both pilots were working on their laptops.

Several new technologies have emerged to help drivers handle the distractions. One, called Myautoreply, works with the Android smartphone platform to intercept both text and voice calls while the owner is driving.

“It’s one thing to have a law, it’s another to deal with the temptations and habits of having a cellphone in the car,” says Pierre Barbeau, CEO of Moblico, which makes Myautoreply.

Some 35 states currently ban texting while behind the wheel. Nine ban the use of handheld cellphones while driving. 

Wire material was used in this report.

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