NTSB: States Should Ban Hands-Free Calls While Driving

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.

A deadly pile-up involving two school buses, a tractor-trailer, and a pickup truck was caused, in part, by texting by the pickup driver. Photo: ##http://www.watoday.com.au/world/deadly-pileup-teen-drivers-11-texts-in-11-minutes-20111213-1ot2r.html##Jeff Roberson/AP##

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 a call 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.

“Studies show hands-free devices provide no safety benefit,” says Focus Driven’s website. “The area of the brain responsible for processing moving visual information—a vital part of driving—has 37 percent less capacity to gather and process critical driving data and instead focuses on the cell phone conversation.” Carnegie Mellon researchers found that people talking on the phone drive the way people drive when they’re drunk.

Nine-year-old Erica Forney was hit by a distracted driver while riding her bike three years ago. She died Thanksgiving Day, 2008. Photo: ##http://www.distraction.gov/content/faces/##Distraction.gov##

All portable electronic devices except GPS units are recommended for bans by the NTSB.

NTSB Chair Deborah Hersman placed some of the blame for the high number of distraction-related crashes on all the bells and whistles on today’s electronic devices.

“Every year, new devices are being released,” she said. “People are tempted to update their Facebook page, they are tempted to tweet, as if sitting at a desk. But they are driving a car.”

The Alliance for Automobile Manufacturers defended onboard entertainment systems, saying people are used to unfettered access to communication and that at least now they can do it without taking their eyes off the road.

Cell phone makers were quick to agree that “manual texting while driving is clearly incompatible with safety,” but wouldn’t take a position on hands-free technology, saying they’d “defer to state and local lawmakers and their constituents” about what should be done.

The efficacy of cell phone bans is still an open question. Despite state bans, texting and driving is up 50 percent in the past year. Missouri’s texting ban for young people didn’t stop last year’s tragic crash from happening. But a commitment to enforce the laws can make a difference. Pilot programs in Syracuse and Hartford supported by U.S. DOT substantially reduced texting and cell phone use while driving.

Any successful effort to curb distracted driving will have to change widespread public attitudes. While many people feel nervous riding in a car where the driver is using a cell phone, they also believe they can do it safely themselves. The Washington Post reports that 88 percent of people surveyed said they knew it was dangerous to use cell phones while driving – but a third did it anyway.

27 thoughts on NTSB: States Should Ban Hands-Free Calls While Driving

  1. Who is “Focus Driven”? I was stunned that its FB page “likes” an arm of AAA.  It seems that AAA is part of the problem, not the solution.  I’m a member of Better World Club, mainly because of AAA’s advocacy against the interests of pedestrians, bicyclists, and transit-users.

  2. 3000 Americans killed by distracted drivers every year is all the reason we need to make this a national ban.

  3. I’m normally not one for adding new restrictions on anything, but in this case years of studies show that distracted driving kills people.  Moreover, banning cell phone use while driving (with exceptions for emergencies) isn’t interfering with some fundamental inalienable right.  Rather, it’s adding a reasonable condition in return for the use of public roadways.  Now if the studies on cell phone use were flawed or inconclusive, I might feel differently.

  4. im all for banning the use of phones.  
    i see way too many boneheaded moves with a driver looking down texting or swerving being immersed in a call.

    however, i stand short of a device in the car that would disable the phone from being used in a car.  

  5. It was wrong for NTSB for not distinguishing between outright texting and people who use headsets. People who use headsets would mostly as distracted as having someone else seating inside the vehicle talking (imagine crying kids in the back of the car), or listening to a talk radio (should we ban radio too). It is often those “safety concerns” ended up in laws that it are hard to enforce and that people don’t want to obey.

    Imagine a scenario where you need to pick someone up and that someone needs to call you to tell you the exact location. I think hands free is a acceptable solution instead of trying to stop a car in somewhere you shouldn’t stop so that you can respond to a call.

  6. Distracted driving is already illegal. Instead of instituting more redundant laws why not lobby the police to actually enforce laws already on the books.

  7. If the government is going to ban cell phone use then it should also ban other passengers in the car, eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting radio, adjusting environmental control, reaching for object in car, etc., which also count as “distractions.”

  8. Maybe we should also ban 2-way radios and backseat drivers? What about the police who use their on-board computers and radios? What about kids yelling “are we there yet”?

  9. As someone pointed out a while ago: “Hands-free” cell phone service may be marginally safer, but not if you’re taking a call from your estranged spouse’s divorce lawyer.

    I should also mention that my wife and I have an understanding that when we approach “gnarly” traffic or tricky merge points or interchanges, I can request “hold that thought” and resume conversation when the path is clear.


  10. I am also skeptical this ban will do much.  Talking on a handheld cell phone while driving has been illegal in California since 2008; texting has been illegal since 2009. And yet the amount of both that I see is so staggering I actually think most people don’t know it’s illegal. As far as I know in San Francisco neither law has ever been enforced. Sadly, a study by the Highway Loss Data Institute released in 2010 shows that instituting cell phone bans in three states did not reduce crash rates (even though it is indeed proven that talking on a cell phone while driving does increase the crash rate!)  It is possible that a ban along with a massive ad campaign might affect behavior, but again lack of enforcement will render it meaningless.

    I’m more in the camp of have a crash that’s your fault (damage property), automatically lose your license for three months. Injure anyone in a way that’s your fault (damage people), automatically lose your license for five months. (If you’re caught driving without a license, the car you are driving is immediately impounded and you’re ineligible for a license for the next three years.) The definition of “damage” could be “requires more than $500 to repair” or “results in a hospital visit.” In cases of extreme recklessness, obviously the penalties should be even more severe.

    So in the vast majority of crashes, someone should lose their license. Let’s use the word “accident” only when a tree branch falls from the sky or some such thing. There are very, very few true “no fault” accidents.

  11. I agree it is difficult to get people to obey a law they don’t think is really important or is hard to observe. Your boss calls, your wife calls, your baby sitter calls, you pick up the phone. Serious consequences for mistakes, though, seem like they could be more effective. Are there any studies on what kinds of policies actually yield the best results?

  12. @014d815e337305dccb0b861fe6cdb3e3:disqus I think there have been studies showing that hands-free headsets are actually almost as distracting as using a normal phone, and much more so than talking with a passenger.

    Not sure the reason for the latter, though one suggestion I’ve seen is that passengers also react to the environment outside the car, and will shut up when things get dicey (whereas someone on the phone will just keep blabbing away no matter what’s happening), or even help alert the driver to dangerous situations.

  13. From the National Safety Council’s white paper on distracted driving:

    Drivers talking on cell phones make more driving errors than drivers talking with passengers. Drivers are more likely to drift out of lanes and miss exits than 
    drivers talking with passengers. Why?

    Adult passengers often actively help drivers by monitoring and discussing traffic. Passengers tend to suppress conversation when driving conditions are demanding.


  14. One thing about this accident, that seems to swept under the rug, is that the school buses also had brake failures at the time of the accident.  Limiting distracted driving is a ll well and good, but don’t you think it is a serious issue that brakes on the buses transporting our kids do not work?  

    “Investigators also found significant problems with the brakes of both school buses involved in the accident. A third school bus sent to a hospital after the accident to pick up students crashed in the hospital parking lot when that bus’ brakes failed.
    Read more: http://www.kansascity.com/2011/12/12/3316243/driver-was-texting-in-missouri.html#ixzz1gfPqCSuY”

  15. Hi!

    I’ve worked for a couple of large oil companies and they are fanatical about safety. Both of them had a golden rule of no phone calls while driving – hands free or otherwise. The rule was known to everyone and adhered to.

    Do you think the oil companies would have such a rule if their data didn’t show that it reduced accidents?

  16. Although I don’t think we should have a long phone conversation while driving, I think there are situations where it is safer to take calls on the phone hands free than trying to stop the car somewhere where it shouldn’t so that we can take the call. In some driving occupations, drivers have two way radios, but for some similar occupations, their two way radio equivalent is the phone.

    I think the whole thing for the complete ban is like asking for abstinence as a way to reduce STDs. In that case NTSB is no different than the Catholic Church.

  17. re: Karen Lynn Allen

    There are people who drive for a living, whether they are professional drivers or just people that need to drive all the time to go from one job site to another. If they were to lose their driver license because of a relatively minor accident (compared to something more serious like DUI), they could also lose their jobs. Not everyone gets a nice 9 to 5 office job in downtown where they can take transit.

    Fault for accidents is determined mostly for insurance purposes (so that someone has to pay), it disregards other factors including road designs, conditions, or other objects. So if an animal jumps out on the road, you swerve to avoid the animal but hit another car. You would likely be ruled at fault but unlikely to get a conviction for a traffic violation.

    Of course getting an at-fault accident with no conviction of a traffic violation doesn’t mean there’s no consequences. Your insurance would go up. If driving is part of your work, it could mean that you will be less likely to get hired (generally employers would accept one or two accidents every few years but no more than that).

  18. Andy, here is an example of crash ruled a no fault “accident.”  This accident apparently wasn’t due to cell phone use but just plain poor driving. The driver was seventeen and smashed into people waiting at a bus stop.


    “According to a published report, the driver was attempting to pass a
    vehicle he had been tailgating. ‘He went into the other lane to overtake
    me [and] he lost control and he hydroplaned,’ dental technician Marina
    Fishman said. ‘He hit the curb, and he went airborne, hitting people like a bowling alley,’ she said. Some
    of the victims were slammed through the glass wall of the shelter,
    while other terrified commuters barely escaped injury, according to

    Six people went to the hospital. The police ruled it a no fault “accident”. The driver did not lose his license for even a day.

    Now it’s true that his insurance probably went up, and no doubt he was more careful afterwards. But if the threat of financial penalties were enough to create safe driving, we wouldn’t have 5.6 million (!) traffic crashes a year in the US. I think the threat of losing one’s license (even for a short period of time) would change behavior far more than threat of extra financial cost. And people who drive professionally really shouldn’t be given wider latitude to hit people without consequences. In fact, they should have a greater onus to drive with care.

  19. While it seems the young driver’s inexperience and poor judgment are contributing factors, if the police doesn’t find enough evidence to show that the driver did something illegal, then the police shouldn’t be pursuing a prosecution. I don’t know whether the police did or did not do the right thing, but if we want to “punish” somebody there should be a higher standard than just being at fault in an accident.

    Yes the accident number is staggering, but we are also a large country with the highest VMT. I don’t know what kind of accident numbers you want to reduce to, but I don’t think any sort of “punishment” would be effective, especially when most do not intend to create any harm, but made a sudden bad judgement. Do you believe that the death penalty reduces crime rate?

    Most professional drivers do drive with care, but you can’t expect perfection, especially when they drive in difficult and demanding environments. I don’t like to drive in Downtown SF in peak hours, nor we encourage people to drive there in peak hours, but Muni drivers have to do it everyday. If you don’t have buses or people who drive them, how could other people abandon their cars? Despite that, if a professional driver is determined to make a major error or make too many of them, they can get fired and have their career ended. Isn’t that enough?

  20. “While many people feel nervous riding in a car where the driver is using
    a cell phone, they also believe they can do it safely themselves.”

    Changing the cultures of driving is a long process, but we must begin.  Enforcement (including reporting on other drivers one sees texting, for example) is a part of that change.

    For now, I have begun with me — entirely stopped using the phone in the car last month.  Have a voice message to that effect for incoming calls.  Pull over to answer or make calls.  It has to begin somewhere, so why not begin first with ourselves?  Move on to our friends when we are their passengers.  We can do this.

  21. My brother was killed by a distracted driver on June 7, 2010.

    To those of you who don’t think driving while talking on the phone is serious;
    just wait.  An accident to your loved one or you will change your mind.

    The other driver got 6 months suspended license and 3 points.

    If you need to kill someone do it with a car.

  22. Both cellphones and hands-free devices are the cause of a lot of accidents which often have casualties. No one contests the necessity of cellphones, but while driving, the attention of the driver should be directed 100% towards driving itself, not other activities. Unfortunately, it usually takes a tragedy to make people reassess their view regarding this phenomenon.

  23. Why do we blame technology for bad driving? Why not blame bad drivers for bad driving? The NTSB says hands-free cell phones are “a distraction”. Well, if it’s distractions we’re concerned about, let’s eliminate audio systems in vehicles. I’ve been on the highway behind people who looked like they were trying to dance while driving – really! And while we’re at it let’s eliminate passengers. I’ve followed people along the road whose heads were turning back and forth, facing the passenger almost as much as the road ahead, and sometimes even talking with at least one hand – if not both. Now, those are distractions inside the vehicle. Outside the vehicle, of course, there are billboards, scenery, and other roadside distractions. Obviously these are extremes and not really practical. But a hands-free cell phone, if used properly, should not be a distraction. The phone should be used sparingly. Some people chat socially through an entire journey – hand-held or hands-free. When I drive, my eyes seldom leave the road ahead, even while answering a phone call. In my car, I can answer with one thumb right at the wheel. If it’s a complicated call, I can tell the person I’ll call them back later. If it’s simple – such as an ETA, or change of direction in traffic, I can handle it without any distraction at all. In my other vehicle, which does not have blue-tooth, I wear an earpiece. A quick reach to my ear to push the answer button is all I need – my eyes never leave the road. The point of it all is common sense driving. Don’t be distracted, either inside the vehicle or out, and let’s not blame the technology. Instead, let’s somehow get the point across to drivers about safe driving – and get the really bad ones off the road.

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