You may remember hearing about it on the news: a deadly highway pileup involving two school buses, a tractor-trailer and a pickup truck that killed a 19-year-old driver and a 15-year-old student. Thirty-eight other people were injured, many of them being children on their way to Six Flags amusement park. What caused the horrific accident? Eleven minutes of distracted driving, during which the 19-year-old pickup driver sent or received 11 text messages on his phone, right up to the moment of impact.
That accident motivated five members on the National Transportation Safety Board to make the unanimous recommendation this year that states ban all driver use of cell phones and other portable devices. The recommendation, which applies to both hands-free and hand-held phones, would exceed any state law restricting cell phone use behind the wheel. The NTSB doesn’t have the power to impose restrictions on its own, but its recommendations do hold water with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers.
Board member Robert Sumwalt noted the reasoning for stricter laws in an interview with the Associated Press; at the time of the crash in Missouri, the state had a law banning drivers under 21 years of age from texting while driving, but wasn’t aggressively enforcing the ban and, as Sumwalt says, "Without the enforcement, the laws don't mean a whole lot.”
The Transportation Department released a new index earlier this week estimating that at least 3,092 people died in “distraction-affected crashes,” though the number could be even higher due to “individuals’ reluctance to admit behavior, lack of witnesses, and in some cases the death of the driver.” An NPR story pointed out that the National Transportation Safety Board has investigated a California commuter rail accident involving an engineer who was texting that killed 25 people; a fatal marine accident in Philadelphia in which a tugboat pilot was talking on his cellphone and using a laptop; and a Northwest Airlines flight that flew more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops.
According to a new report released by the NTSB, of 6,000 drivers surveyed about their phone habits behind the wheel, two in 10 said they have sent text messages or emails while driving. About half of drivers aged 21 through 24 admitted to this. At the same time, the majority of people questioned said they supported laws banning texting by drivers, and six in 10 respondents said they would support laws banning talking on cell phones while behind the wheel. Interestingly, though, the majority of drivers don’t believe they are distracted at all while driving, including while reading texts, putting on makeup or even reading the newspaper while steering.
The new NTSB recommendations reflect an acknowledgement that texting while driving is dangerous no matter the circumstances or the age, occupation and experience of the driver. They had previously recommended bans on texting and cell phone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and new drivers, but until now haven’t called for a ban on the use of the devices by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.
It’s clear that distracted driving, and specifically texting while driving, is unsafe for drivers, their passengers and those on the road around them. What’s your take on texting while driving? Do you agree with the new NTSB recommendations?