NTSB Proposes Nationwide Ban on Cell Phone Use in Cars

by Shannen W. Coffin

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a synopsis of its forthcoming report on a fatal multi-vehicle, chain-reaction crash in Missouri last year. The agency concluded that the driver of the pickup truck who started the chain reaction had been texting in moments immediately preceding the crash. Other drivers involved in the crash were distracted by other factors not relating to cell-phone usage — such as a broken down bus stopped on the side of the road. 

From this single accident, which killed several and injured more (including school kids on a bus headed to an amusement park), the NTSB recommends to the 50-states that they adopt statutes banning any use of cellular phones while driving. (The NTSB has no power to do so at the federal level, so this is merely a recommendation to state legislators and regulators.) 

A Washington Post online story about the report notes that, in 2009, nearly 5,500 fatalities and 500,000 injuries resulted from crashes involving a distracted driver. It’s not clear how many of those fatalities involved cell phone use, though the Post notes several candidates anecdotally. But it is interesting and opportunistic that the NTSB would use a single incident as a launching pad for such a broad prohibition.  At least according to the NTSB’s own executive summary of its report, there appear to have been no studies or empirical evidence about the frequency of cell-phone related distractions causing accidents and fatalities. Yet a comprehensive ban is the proposed solution. 

Obviously, there are risks involved in failing to pay full time and attention to the road, and thus the the possibility of distraction caused by texting or phoning while driving is real. But shouldn’t such broad reaching regulation require more careful evaluation than a report on a single accident?  Perhaps it is only because NTSB is making a recommendation, rather adopting than binding regulation, that it feels free to propose such a drastic remedy on the basis of scant evidence. And perhaps the full report, which has not yet been released, will demonstrate a more careful analysis of all of the available data. This report is sure to get significant play in the media, and its recommendation admits of no exception. It would be irresponsible at best, and reckless at worst, to suggest regulatory bans on the basis of a single episode like this. 

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