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NTSB: States Should Ban Hands-Free Calls While Driving

10:40 AM PST on December 15, 2011

In Missouri last year, a 19-year-old driving a pickup at 55 mph sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes immediately before he caused a deadly crash.

The ensuing collision killed the texting driver as well as a 15-year-old student who was on a high-school band trip to the Six Flags amusement park in St. Louis. Thirty-eight others were injured.

An investigation into the crash led the National Transportation Safety Board this week to issue acall for all states to ban all cell phone use by drivers, except in emergencies. Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, and 30 states ban all cell phone use for new drivers. Only nine states and DC have overall bans on hand-held cell phone use.

“Distraction-affected” crashes killed 3,092 people last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The NTSB isn’t recommending a federal ban but rather identical state bans everywhere in the country. Some speculate that the Interstate Commerce Clause precludes a federal ban, but I haven’t heard any of the agencies explain the legal basis for pursuing only state laws.

It was widely (mis)reported last week that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood had gotten behind a federal ban on cell phone use. In fact, LaHood is supportive of state bans but hasn’t gotten behind a federal ban. He has talked about passing “good legislation in Congress” to do for texting what the .08 blood alcohol threshold did for drunk driving, but nothing that would amount to a ban.

The NTSB recommendations aren’t binding, but they’re raising the profile of the dangers of all cell phone use, not just texting or calling from a handset. The NTSB doesn’t distinguish between hands-free technology and other use of portable electronic devices. They consider it all distracting, as does Focus Driven, an organization devoted to ending distracted driving.

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