WASHINGTON – 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.
Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman acknowledged that 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.
Currently, 35 states 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.
After watching distracted driving bills die session after legislative session, Nevada lawmakers passed a law earlier this year that prohibits motorists from texting or talking on hand-held devices. Warnings have been issued since Oct. 1, but drivers face fines starting Jan. 1. The first offense will cost drivers $50, the second $100 and the third $250.
For years, bills failed because traffic officers complained that the law would be difficult to enforce and because some lawmakers thought such a law would violate Nevadans’ civil liberties.
While the NTSB cannot set policy for states, the federal government can pull highway funds, and that possibility contributed to Nevada legislators’ decision to take action.
"I think it’s a great idea to eliminate cellphone use (by drivers) all together," said state Sen. Shirley Breeden, D-Henderson, who authored the bill that passed last session. "I wanted to submit a bill like that, but it would not pass in Nevada. I had a difficult time getting my colleagues to vote for this bill."
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, cellphone calls and other distracting behavior by drivers in accidents involving all kinds of transportation. It has become routine to request the immediate 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. 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 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported earlier this year that pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., produced significant reductions in distracted driving by combining stepped-up ticketing with high-profile public education campaigns. But that was with blanket enforcement by police.
The board’s decision to include hands-free cellphone use in its recommendation is likely to prove especially controversial. No states currently ban hands-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 is happening on the road.
Hersman pointed to an Alexandria, Va., accident in which a bus driver talking on a hands-free phone ran into a bridge despite being familiar with the route and the presence of warning signs that the arch was too low for his bus to clear. The bus roof was sheared off.
The board previously has 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.
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.
About two out of 10 American drivers overall — and half of drivers between 21 and 24 — say they’ve thumbed messages or emailed from the driver’s seat, according to a survey of more than 6,000 drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
At any given moment last year on America’s roadways, nearly one in every 100 car drivers was texting, emailing, surfing the Web or otherwise using a handheld electronic device, the safety administration said. Those activities were up 50 percent over 2009.
After the Missouri accident, investigators said they think the pickup driver was suffering from fatigue that may have eroded his judgment. He had an average of about five and a half hours of sleep a night in the days leading up to the accident and had had fewer than five hours of sleep the night before the accident, they said.
Las Vegas Review-Journal writer Adrienne Packer contributed to this report.