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NTSB: Hands-on, Hands-free, Whatever - Just Hang Up and Drive

NTSB: Hands-on, Hands-free, Whatever - Just Hang Up and Drive

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board has recommended a nationwide ban on using any personal electronic devices while driving. The ban would cover not only texting and the hands-on use of a cellphone while behind the wheel, but also the use of many kinds of hands-free devices like Bluetooth earpieces.

By John P. Mello Jr.
12/14/11 9:14 AM PT

The agency charged with making U.S. highways safe for drivers has called for a national ban on the use of personal electronic devices while operating a motor vehicle, including many hands-free devices.

The five-member National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) made its call for the ban as it released Tuesday a summary of its report on a multi-vehicle pile-up in Gray Summit, Mo., that killed two people and injured 38 others.

The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers.

Three thousand people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents, according to Chairperson Deborah A.P. Hersman. "No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life," she added.

The board did not respond to our request for further details

A Few Bad Apples

A total ban on the use of mobile phones while operating a motor vehicle isn't likely to grab much traction in the states. No states have total bans on the use of all electronic devices, fewer than a dozen prohibit hands-on use while driving and nearly three-quarters (36) specifically bar texting while driving.

In the board's report, it found that the driver who caused the accident received 11 texts in the 11 minutes preceding the event.

"I'm not an advocate of a complete ban, but I'm certainly an advocate of a ban on texting while driving, and I don't think a hands-free device is a bad idea either," said Mark Link, a personal injury attorney with Link & Smith, who spoke to TechNewsWorld through a hands-free device while driving.

Georgia bans texting while driving but allows drivers to operate cellphones while operating a vehicle, he explained.

"Unfortunately, in our economy, we've grown so accustomed to using cellphones in our cars, not only for personal business, but for work, that I don't think that would be an appropriate measure," he said of a total ban on personal electronic devices in vehicles.

"It's like throwing out the whole bushel for a couple of bad apples," he added.

Dueling Studies

Research may be lacking to support a total ban on operating devices while driving, maintained Bill Windsor, associate vice president for consumer safety with the Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company. "We've worked over the last six years proposing bans for texting and hand-held phone use," he told TechNewsWorld, but added that additional research is needed on hands-free use.

"We need to get a better understanding of the cognitive distraction related to just talking on the phone," he asserted.

Studies by the University of Utah and Carnegie Mellon University, he noted, have shown that just talking on a phone while driving does create risk, but a study by Virginia Tech University contradicts those findings.

In the Virginia Tech study, which included light-vehicle drivers and truck drivers, manual manipulation of phones such as dialing and texting lead to a substantial increase in the risk of being involved in a safety-critical event such as a crash or near-crash.

However, the researchers concluded that talking or listening increased risk much less for light vehicles and not at all for trucks.

Driving Like a Drunk

In the Carnegie Mellon study, researchers showed through the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that simply listening to someone speak on the other end of a cellphone is enough to impair driving. When a driver is listening to a sentence, for example, they're more likely to weave in their lane.

Moreover, the study showed that listening to someone speak while they were driving reduced by 37 percent the amount of brain activity associated with driving, compared to driving alone. That decrease, the researchers asserted, can cause drivers to commit the same types of driving errors that can occur under the influence of alcohol.

While it may be difficult, if not impossible, to get all the states to agree on a national ban on operating a cellphone while driving, partial prohibitions may make some headway now that the NTSB is pushing them, Windsor contended.

"There's a good chance that you'll get texting and hand-held phone bans," he told TechNewsWorld. "Before we get to the total ban, we're going to need additional research on the risk of a crash just by talking on the phone."


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