NTSB's recommended banning of cell phone use in cars has certainly focused debate about distracted driving causes. (And listen here to a discussion with the chairman of the board.)
The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board recently recommended that government regulators prohibit all cell phone use in moving vehicles, even with hands-free devices unless the call is for emergency services (i.e. 911 calls). Based on auto accidents they've investigated over the years, the agency contends such communication, particularly texting, is a significant distraction for drivers' attention.
Now, first off, it has to be remembered that driving is not a right but a privilege regulated by the authorities for safety and traffic management. But would such a ban go too far? After all, talking to a passenger seated next to a driver can also be distracting. One fellow member of the New England Motor Press Association told me he regards talking on a hands-free phone the same as talking to a passenger. And even with a hand-held unit, once it is dialed and put on speaker (the most distracting part of its use), can function as a hands-free phone.
On the other side of the coin, talking to a passenger is not the same because the other person is in the same environment and situation as the driver, and thus knows automatically when the driver needs to focus more attention on the road, tailoring his/her behavior accordingly. And the NTSB feels the hands-free distraction, while not as severe as texting (which most reasonable people will agree demands a total ban), requires action because it is so widespread (i.e. a lower risk factor spread over a wider data base produces a significant number of accident incidences).
So where do we go from here? First off, for the sake of full disclosure, as someone who has had two family members run into by drivers either texting or on a cell phone, I am firmly in the camp of tightening communication device use to reduce distraction—provided it can be enforced effectively or technology adapted, in the vehicle or device, to avoid use in dangerous situations.
At least we will likely see a country-wide ban in the U.S. on texting while driving, the worst of such offenses. Why not leave us a comment as to what you see as a reasonable technical or regulatory solution to the distracted driving problem?
For a thoughtful discussion of the NTSB recommendation, which includes board chair Deborah Hersman and others, click here (in which only one participant gets semi-hysterical about "abolitionists" of drivers rights).
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