Hold the Phone

February 15, 2012

By Jim Gorzelany

In a ruling that could alter the
lifestyles of millions of Americans,
the National Transportation Safety

Board has recommended states
completely ban the use of all
mobile phones and other portable
electronic devices while driving,
except in emergency situations.
‘‘We know this recommendation
is going to be very unpopular with
some people,'' says NTSB
Chairwoman Deborah Hersman.
‘‘We're not here to win a popularity
contest. We're here to do the right
thing. No call, no text, no update, is
worth a human life."
Unanimously agreed on by the
five-member board, the ruling
includes both hand-held and handsfree
devices, and is far stricter than
any current state law on the books
regarding talking and texting while
behind the wheel. While the NTSB
doesn't specifically have legislative
power, its rulings are said to carry
influence with federal regulators,
members of Congress and state legislatures.
The last 20 years has seen an
explosion in the use of mobile
phones and portable electronic
devices. There are currently 5.3 billion
mobile phone subscribers
worldwide, which represent 77
percent of the Earth’s population.
Distracted driving has become a
growing problem in recent years
with the proliferation in mobile
technology. According to the
National Highway Safety
Administration, nearly one out of
every 100 motorists is either texting,
emailing, surfing the Web or
otherwise using a handheld electronic
device at any given time.
NHTSA says drivers are more than
24 times more likely to crash their
cars if they're texting while driving.
In 2010, nearly 3,100 people were
killed in distracted driving crashes
according to NHTSA data. Currently
35 states ban texting while driving;
nine states and many municipalities
ban the use of hand-held phones
In its report, the NTSB cited
numerous incidents of fatalities
caused by distracted driving
across all modes of transportation.
For example, among the worst
was the 2008 collision of a commuter
train with a freight train in
Chatsworth, Calif. A railroad engineer
ignored a red signal while
texting, causing a head-on crash
that killed 25 people and injured
dozens more. In 2004, a school
bus driver, distracted while using
his hands-free cell phone, struck
the underside of an arched stone
bridge on the George Washington
Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia,
injuring 11 of the 27 high school
students aboard.
Critics of the proposed ban
cite its probable chilling effect on
the so-called mobile workforce.
These include those engaged in
fleet operations and road-warrior
sales staff and other employees
that are expected to dial into conference
calls or contact customers
or suppliers while away from
their offices. It also raises liability
issues for their employers. Already,
employers in Washington and
California can be held liable for
employee accidents if employees
using hand-free devices are found
negligent in accidents.
What’s more, future generations
of vehicles could be affected
should the proposed ban become
widespread. Auto makers are currently
rolling out technology that
integrates data-plan enabled smartphones
with cars like Ford's Sync,
General Motors' MyLink,
Mercedes-Benz’ mbrace and
Toyota's Entune systems. Among
other functions, they allow motorists
to have text messages, Tweets
and Facebook updates read aloud
via a car’s audio system, with twoway
voice-activated functionality
looming on the horizon.
It's not certain how such services
would fare should individual
states adopt the NTSB's proposed
ban, but if the board has its way
then all uses of portable devices,
however operated or for whatever
purposes, would be outlawed. If
that's the case, it's back to the proverbial
drawing board for carmakers
embracing smartphone connectivity
as a way to (no pun intended)
connect with younger and
more tech-savvy consumers.

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