Texting, emailing or using a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed anywhere, federal safety investigators declared Tuesday, recommending that all states impose a total ban except for emergencies.
Inspired by recent deadly crashes -- including one in which a teenager sent or received 11 text messages in 11 minutes before an accident -- the recommendation would apply even to hands-free devices, a much stricter rule than any current state law.
The unanimous recommendation by the five-member National Transportation Safety Board would make an exception for devices deemed to aid driver safety such as GPS navigation systems.
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Board chairman Deborah Hersman acknowledged the recommendation would be unpopular with many people and that complying would involve what has become ingrained behavior for many Americans.
While the NTSB doesn't have the power to impose restrictions, its recommendations carry significant weight with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers. Another recommendation issued Tuesday urges states to aggressively enforce current bans on text messaging and the use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices while driving.
“We're not here to win a popularity contest,” she said. “No email, no text, no update, no call is worth a human life.”
Currently, 35 states -- including Delaware, New Jersey and soon Pennsylvania -- ban texting while driving and some bar cellphone use or emailing with hand-held devices. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices.
The immediate impetus for the recommendation of state bans was a deadly highway pileup near Gray Summit, Mo., last year in which a 19-year-old pickup driver sent and received a flurry of texts just before the accident.
NTSB investigators said they are seeing increasing texting, cell phone calls and other distracting behavior by drivers in accidents involving all kinds of transportation. It has become routine to immediately request the preservation of cellphone and texting records when an investigation is begun.
In the past few years the board has investigated a train collision in which the engineer was texting that killed 25 people in Chatsworth, Calif.; a fatal accident on the Delaware River near Philadelphia in which a tugboat pilot was talking on his cellphone and using a laptop computer and a Northwest Airlines flight that sped more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops.
Last year, a driver was dialing his cellphone when his truck crossed a highway median near Munford, Ind., and collided with a 15-passenger van. Eleven people were killed.
The board said the initial collision in the Missouri accident was caused by the inattention of the pickup driver who was texting a friend about events of the previous night. The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, hit the back of a tractor truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus that overrode the smaller vehicle. A second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus.
The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured. About 50 students, mostly members of a high school band from St. James, Mo., were on the buses heading to the Six Flags St. Louis amusement park.
Missouri had a law banning drivers under 21 years old from texting while driving at the time of the crash, but wasn't aggressively enforcing the ban, board member Robert Sumwalt said.
“Without the enforcement, the laws don't mean a whole lot,” he said.
The board's decision to include hands-free cell phone use in its recommendation is likely to prove especially controversial. No states currently ban hand-free use although many studies show that it is often as unsafe as hand-held phone use because drivers' minds are on their conversations rather than what's happening on the road.
The board has previously recommended bans on texting and cellphone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and beginning drivers, but it has stopped short of calling for a ban on the use of the devices by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.
The problem of texting while driving is getting worse despite a rush by states to ban the practice, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said last week. In November, Pennsylvania became the 35th state to forbid texting while driving.
AAA Mid-Atlantic released the following statement on the NTSB recommendations:
AAA advocacy efforts to date have not focused on full wireless bans, which have limited legislative and public support. Instead, AAA has focused on enacting bans on text messaging while driving, teen driver wireless bans and comprehensive distracted driving laws that increase penalties for drivers who commit violations or crash due to distracted driving -- measures that have broader support among our members, the public and legislators.