The National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday that all states and the District ban cellphone use behind the wheel, becoming the first federal agency to call for an outright prohibition on telephone conversations while driving.
The independent NTSB has neither the legislative muscle of Congress nor the regulatory power of the White House, but as the nation’s leading federal safety advocate its recommendations carry weight in both places. Its recommendations also provide political cover if Congress or the administration wants to take on the powerful cellphone industry lobby and an American public addicted to cellphones and other forms of electronic communication.
It would be up to state legislatures, which already have banned text messaging while driving in 35 states and the District, to decide whether cellphone use should be illegal. But in the past, Congress has not been shy about leveraging its control of the federal purse strings to bring states in line on issues such as seat belts and the legal drinking age.
“The NTSB recommendation may be a game-changer,” said Jonathan Adkins, spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “States aren’t ready to support a total ban yet, but this may start the discussion.”
The cellphone industry trade association, CTIA, has supported bans on texting while driving. But the group said it would “defer to state and local lawmakers and their constituents” on laws that govern talking on devices while driving.
“The industry constantly produces new products and services, including those that can disable the driver’s mobile device,” CTIA said in a statement.
Nine states and the District require drivers to use hands-free devices, although several recent authoritative studies have concluded that use of hands-free equipment does not make drivers any less distracted than they might be if the phone were pressed to their ear.
Some drivers acknowledged Tuesday that distractions have become a problem, but they were not ready to endorse a total ban either. It’s not as if the NTSB is proposing banning talking to passengers or eating, said Arlington County resident Peter Hogan, who thinks hands-free devices should be allowed.
“It’s distracting, but almost everything you do can be distracting,” he said.
Hogan, 54, said he’s wary when he sees a driver with a cellphone pressed to the ear, pointing out one cruising down Clarendon Boulevard. “It’s a problem.”
Brenda Barnes, 53, of Temple Hills also acknowledged the danger. “You can always tell when people are on their phones,” although she added that hands-free devices should be allowed.