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NTSB Recommends Useless National Ban on All Mobile Phone Use while Driving

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) yesterday called on all states to ban "the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers." This was in response to an August 2010 three-collision accident in Missouri involving two school buses traveling in a convoy, a pickup, and a truck-tractor. The accident killed two people and injured 38. It went like this:

Collision 1: The pickup driver, who was engaging in a text-message conversation, rear-ended the truck-tractor after failing to notice that it had slowed or stopped.

Collision 2: The first school bus, whose driver was distracted by a passenger bus pulled over on the side of the road, then struck the pickup, killing the pickup driver.

Collision 3: The second school bus, following the first bus too closely, was unable to stop in time to avoid the collision, killing a high school student seated in the rear of the first bus.

There were multiple factors involved: the pickup driver was distracted by his cell phone, the pickup driver was fatigued, the first school bus driver was distracted by the other passenger bus on the side of the road, and the second school bus driver failed to follow at a safe distance. However, it was the inattention and unsafe behavior of the school bus drivers that ultimately resulted in fatalities, and these collisions involved external, rather than internal factors. It is worth noting that at the time of the accident, Missouri had a law on the books that banned texting while driving for drivers under 21. The texting driver of the pickup was 19 years old.

After studying the causes of the accident, NTSB issued a number of recommendations, one of which is garnering a significant amount of media attention: calling on the states to institute bans that would include texting while driving, use of a hand-held mobile phone while driving, and use of a hands-free mobile phone while driving.

Distracted driving is certainly a problem, although it is not responsible for as many fatalities and injuries as drunk driving [PDF], speeding [PDF], or aggressive driving [Figure 7]. But calling on states to institute bans on cell phone use will do little to reduce distracted-driving deaths. First, these bans are extremely difficult to enforce, particularly if the driver is using a hands-free device. Second, most distracted driving accidents are not caused by cell phone use. In fact, drivers distracted by conversations with passengers is a factor in far more crashes than cell phone use [Figure 1].

Obviously NTSB isn't going to call for bans on speaking in motor vehicles or isolating the driver from the rest of the cab with soundproofing technology. But there are plenty more potential internal distractions to worry about: watching your kids in the backseat through the rear-view mirror, reading a map, eating and drinking, smoking, grooming, adjusting the stereo, using a navigation device, adjusting climate controls, retrieving objects from seats or the floor, etc.

All of these internal distraction factors are primarily or partially responsible for some accidents. Rather than instituting bans on what drivers may or may not be doing inside their automobiles, licensing and testing authorities ought to be educating drivers on safe driving behaviors. Multitasking while driving naturally increases crash risk, but does anyone for a minute believe that prohibiting all multitasking (whatever that even means) would be enforceable or even beneficial?

But even if distraction bans are enforced, they may not even work. According to research by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety's Highway Loss Data Institute, hardly a pro-distraction outfit, state bans on hand-held phone use while driving do not reduce crash risk [PDF] and state bans on texting while driving may actually increase crash risk [PDF]. "[C]learly drivers did respond to the bans somehow, and what they might have been doing was moving their phones down and out of sight when they texted, in recognition that what they were doing was illegal. This could exacerbate the risk of texting by taking drivers' eyes further from the road and for a longer time."

The move by NTSB is clearly political and lacks any rational basis. Given their limitations and not wanting to appear useless, as is often the case for nanny state bureaucrats, they must do "something" -- even if that "something" will fail to achieve what its backers claim. If states are serious about improving highway safety, they ought to ignore NTSB's recommended bans and work on improving their driver education programs. NTSB's handwaving is nothing more than a distraction from a very serious issue.