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Feds Call for Nationwide Ban on Texts, Phones While Driving

The National Transportation Safety Board wants all 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban drivers’ “nonemergency use of portable electronic devices” except for in-car GPS navigation.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called Tuesday, Dec. 13, for a nationwide ban on nearly all use of personal electronic devices — including cellphones and smartphones — by drivers.

The board’s recommendation came in a review of a highway accident that occurred last year in Gray Summit, Mo., that killed two people and injured 38 others. A review determined the accident likely was caused by a distracted driver who sent several text messages in the moments before the pileup.

The NTSB’s recommended that all 50 states and the District of Columbia ban drivers’ “nonemergency use of portable electronic devices” except for uses that support the task of driving, such as GPS navigation. The board is also calling for the ban of drivers’ use of hands-free calling technology.

The NTSB also urged CTIA — The Wireless Association and the Consumer Electronics Association to “encourage the development of technology features that disable the functions of portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion; these technology features should include the ability to permit emergency use of the device while the vehicle is in motion and have the capability of identifying occupant seating position so as not to interfere with use of the device by passengers.”

The board also wants states to heighten enforcement of existing laws that prohibit technology that contributes to distracted driving and to enact public awareness campaigns about the issue.

“According to [the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents", said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman in a statement Tuesday. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving."

A press release announcing NTSB’s recommendations cited a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of commercial drivers that found “a safety-critical event is 163 times more likely if a driver is texting, emailing or accessing the Internet.”

According to the nonprofit Governors Highway Safety Association (GHSA) website, nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands have laws on the books that prohibit all drivers from using handhelds. Thirty states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by “novice” drivers, which typically includes an age limit; 41 states ban novice drivers from texting. No state currently bans both handheld and hands-free use of personal electronic devices, according to the association.

A report on distracted driving released this year by the GHSA found there is no conclusive evidence that drivers’ use of hands-free technology is less risky than handheld devices. About one-third of drivers routinely use a cellphone while driving, the report said. One driver was reported to have been distracted in 15 to 30 percent of crashes, although the report said that proportion could in reality be even higher.

Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.