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Feds propose 50-state ban on mobile use while driving

Handheld, hands-free, texting, browsing – it's all deadly

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The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has called for a nationwide ban on driving while using what it calls "personal electronic devices" – PEDs – by which they mean mobile phones and, to a lesser extent, fondleslabs.

And when the NTSB says mobile phones, they mean handheld or hands-free, unless the hands-free system is installed by the vehicle's manufacturer.

"No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life," said NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman in a statement, noting that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has said that over 3,000 people were killed last year in accidents caused by what has become known as "distracted driving".

"It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving," Hersman said.

In addition to simply banning all nonemergency mobile-device use while driving, the NTSB recommended to the CTIA and the Consumer Electronics Association that they "encourage the development" of features that disable PEDs within reach of the driver while a vehicle is in motion, and that PEDs be able to detect the seating position of passengers so as to allow non-drivers to use them.

The call for an end to all PED use while driving came in report based on an NTSB investigation of an August 5, 2010 accident in Missouri, in which a pickup truck ran into a truck-tractor that had slowed in a construction zone. The pickup was then struck from behind by a school bus, which was plowed into by a second school bus. Two people were killed and 38 were injured.

The NTSB later determined that the 19-year-old driver of the pickup truck had sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes before the accident, and that the final message was received right before the pickup ran into the truck-tractor.

The investigation concluded that the texting was the probable cause of the accident, ruling out weather, drink, drugs, driver inexperience, any mechanical problems with the vehicles involved, highway design, or construction-zone signs or policies.

The report also noted that the pickup truck driver – one of the fatalities – "was fatigued at the time of the accident due to cumulative sleep debt and acute sleep loss, which could have resulted in impaired cognitive processing or other performance decrements." In addition, the driver of the first bus had been distracted by a motorcoach that had pulled to the side of the road, and the driver of the second bus was faulted for following the first bus too closely.

In addition to the 2010 accident under investigation, the NTSB cited a 2002 accident in which a "novice driver" was distracted by her cell phone, flipped her car, and killed five people.

Also noted as examples of incidents in which distracted vehicle operators were at fault were a 2004 motocoach accident that injured 11, a 2008 commuter-train collision that killed 25, a commercial airline overshooting its destination by 100 miles in 2009 because its pilots were distracted by their laptops, a barge running over a boat in 2010 and killing two, and a tractor-trailer jumping the median in 2010, striking a van, and killing 11.

In support of their recommendations, the NTBS cited a 2009 study of commercial drivers by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which reported that a "a safety-critical event is 163 times more likely if a driver is texting, e-mailing, or accessing the Internet."

"The data is clear; the time to act is now," Hersman said. "How many more lives will be lost before we, as a society, change our attitudes about the deadliness of distractions?"

Currently, US bans on the use of mobile devices while driving are in force in several states, with varying rules for all drivers, novice drivers, and school bus drivers. Various states have various rules for texting while driving, or using hands-free cell phones.

The NTSB now recommends that complete mobile-phone bans be extended to all 50 states – but don't hold your breath.

But do keep an eye out for that texting twit in the next lane. ®

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