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No cell phones in cars? Won't fly, experts say

Tom Fontaine
| Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011

As states including Pennsylvania ban texting while driving, a federal investigative agency wants to go a step further.

The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday called on states to ban all non-emergency use of cell phones and other portable devices by drivers.

The NTSB also urged wireless companies to find ways to disable drivers' devices when they're on the road, except when emergencies arise. The recommendation does not apply to hands-free systems built into vehicles.

"That would probably be the most ignored law since Prohibition," said state Rep. Rick Geist, R-Altoona, chairman of the House Transportation Committee.

The NTSB doesn't have authority to establish traffic laws, but spokesman Terry Williams said recommendations of the five-member board are implemented 80 percent of the time.

"That would take some heavy lifting," AAA spokesman Brian Newbacher said, noting Pennsylvania became the 35th state in the country to adopt a texting ban for drivers last month after years of debate.

The NTSB unanimously approved the latest recommendations in connection with its findings regarding a highway pileup in Missouri last year that killed two people and injured 38. The initial collision was caused by an inattentive pickup driver who sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes before the crash, the board said. The crash also involved a tractor-trailer and two school buses carrying children to an amusement park.

NTSB investigators are increasingly citing texting, cell phone calls and other distracting behavior by drivers in accidents across all modes of transportation.

In recent years, they investigated a commuter rail accident that killed 25 people in California in which the train engineer was texting; a fatal tugboat accident in Philadelphia in which a pilot was talking on his cell phone 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 previously recommended bans on texting and cell phone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and beginning drivers, but it has stopped short of calling for a ban on cell phones by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.

AAA supports text-message bans and prohibiting drivers younger than 18 from using cell phones when they're on the road. It discourages adults from talking on cell phones but does not support an outright ban, Newbacher said.

"We're focusing our advocacy efforts on what we believe to be more easily accomplished from a legislative standpoint," Newbacher said. "Support (of a complete ban) by legislators and our members just isn't there yet. That debate will continue."

Carnegie Mellon University psychology professor Marcel Just, who has studied the issue, said implementing the NTSB's recommendations "could be another dramatic step forward in reducing the unacceptably high levels of driving-related fatalities in the U.S.," which total more than 33,000 a year.

Although vehicles are safer than ever before, he said, "we are our own worst enemy."

Geist, the House transportation chairman, supported the texting ban, but didn't appear eager to pursue a cell phone ban.

"I think you can do a heck of a lot more with education than you can with a billy club -- or laws after the fact," Geist said.

Geist pointed to Pennsylvania's seat belt usage. At an estimated 86 percent, it's in the middle of the pack among states, but it has increased 7 percentage points in seven years, federal data show. It's a secondary traffic violation, meaning motorists can't be pulled over for not wearing seat belts, but use has gone up because "we've pounded and pounded away on that through educational campaigns."

"The governor could start a campaign against distracted driving tomorrow," Geist said. "You wouldn't need any legislation to do that."

Kelly Roberts, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tom Corbett, said the governor has "taken a firm stance on distracted driving," noting the Shaler Republican signed bills this fall to add restrictions for teen drivers and to ban texting.

"We have a brand new safety measure on the books. Certainly, if the Legislature wanted to consider adding to that, we would work with them and review any proposals," Roberts said.

Last year, PennDOT recorded 13,790 crashes involving distracted drivers, which resulted in 66 deaths. Cell phone use accounted for 1,093 crashes and 11 traffic fatalities. Agency data do not distinguish between texting and talking on a cell phone.

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