By Jim Gorzelany
In a ruling that could alter the lifestyles of millions of Americans, the National Transportation Safety Board 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 hands-free devices, and is far stricter than any current state law 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 using a handheld electronic device at any given time. NHTSA says drivers are over 24 times more likely to crash 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 altogether.
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. Automakers 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 two-way 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 reach younger and more tech-savvy consumers.