Feds call for total ban on cell phone use while driving

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday recommended a nationwide ban on all portable electronic devices in cars except GPS units. 

The transportation board is moving away from its previous piecemeal approach aimed at convincing states one-by-one to enact laws barring texting and other forms of cellphone use in cars. More than 30 states have already banned either texting-while-driving or talking without hands-free devices, but the NTSB is now asking all 50, plus the District of Columbia, to ban everything other than devices "used for driving tasks," like a GPS. 

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The new approach is likely to set off a battle in Congress and on K Street and intensify a nationwide debate on what drivers should and should not be able to do while driving. But NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said Tuesday it was "time" for a nationwide ban.

"This is the culmination of 10 years of investigative work on all modes of transportation," she told reporters during a press conference.

"We see distracted driving as something has been more prevalant across society and been the cause of many accidents," she continued. "We're in an environment where new devices are coming out every day and people are tempted to update their Facebook status or send a tweet as if they were sitting at their desks, but they're driving a car."



Although the agency is calling for a national ban on portable devices, it is not pressing for congressional action. Hersman said the NTSB is focusing on convincing the states that have not enacted bans on distracted driving to do so, and the ones that just outlawed texting or talking on handheld phones to increase their prohibitions.


"States are the ones that can pass laws, they can enforce those laws and in many cases, they are responsible for educational campaigns," she said. "I know this is an issue the Hill is following, but we make recommendations to states generally when it comes to highway safety."

Hersman acknowledged there was likely to be fierce opposition to the proposal, saying "this is a difficult recommendation."

"But it's the right recommendation, and it's time," she said. 

Before Hersman's news conference Tuesday afternoon, the NTSB became making the case for nationwide ban on one of the very social networking websites it said was causing more drivers to be distracted by their cell phones, Twitter. 

"No call, no text, no update is worth a human life," the agency said Tuesday in a tweet

"Turn the portable electronic devices off before turning the car on," another series of Twitter messages said. "The price for staying connected while driving is too high. Hang up the phone. Life is far more precious than a phone call or a playlist."

The NTSB's move to call for a nationwide ban comes after the agency investigated a crash in Missouri that involved a school bus. It found that a pick-up driver who was killed in the accident had sent 11 text messages in the minutes leading up to the fatal crash, in which he and a high school student were killed, the NTSB said.

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Transportation officials have previously encouraged states to pass their own distracted driving laws, though they had not specifically called for a nationwide ban.

In a recent speech at the National Press Club in Washington, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood noted that the number of states with distracted driving laws had increased from 8 to to more than 30 in his time in office.

The sponsor of a bill in Congress that would enact a federal ban on cell phone use, Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (D-N.Y.), said that while she supported the NTSB's goal of a nationwide ban, the most effective way to achieve it was working through Congress.

“We can’t wait for multiple states to act, and we can’t afford to have a patchwork of laws where some Americans are more protected than others,” McCarty said in a statement Tuesday.  “The simplest, safest solution would be a single national standard, like we have for blood alcohol content.  Texting while driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving, and getting more and more common every day.  All Americans deserve to be safe no matter where they’re traveling.”

Meanwhile, the lobbying group for the cell phone industry, CTIA-The Wireless Association, said Tuesday that it was against a ban on "manual texting," leaving open the possibility that it would support technologies such as voice recognition and built-in onboard computers in newer cars.

"Manual texting while driving is clearly incompatible with safety, which is why we have historically supported a ban on texting while driving," CTIA President Steve Largent said in a statement released on the organization's blog.

"As far as talking on wireless devices while driving, we defer to state and local lawmakers and their constituents as to what they believe are the most appropriate laws where they live," he said.

Largent said the cell phone industry "remains focused on educating consumers about their responsibilities when they’re driving, especially inexperienced drivers," pointing to recent public service announcements that have been released by CTIA.

He said cell phone companies have been working with transportation regulators, and would continue to do. 

“In regards to NTSB’s recommendation number 12, we have always encouraged the industry to continue to develop new technology-based tools and offerings that are affordable and consumer-friendly that would create safer driving," he said. "The industry constantly produces new products and services, including those that can disable the driver’s mobile device."

Hersman said Tuesday that automobile manufacturing groups like the Auto Alliance of America have released guidelines for car companies to follow as they build cars with increased computer technology, "but those guidelines have not always been followed," she said.

-This story was updated with new information at 3:35 p.m.