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.
“I can have my earpiece in, and I can talk and I can still pay attention,” Barnes said.
But Megan Moore, an Annapolis businesswoman, said drivers routinely ignore Maryland’s hands-free requirement.
“When you arrive at the gym in the morning, every woman pulls up in her Escalade with a phone stuck to her ear,” Moore said. “I just don’t know how you regulate that unless all cars come with something that buzzes out your cellphone. ”
The NTSB recommendation came Tuesday as the safety agency completed its investigation of a 2010 Missouri accident in which it said a 19-year-old pickup truck driver who had sent 11 text messages in the previous 11 minutes caused a chain-reaction collision. The crash involved a tractor-trailer and two school buses. Two people were killed and 38 injured.
Although he’s stopped short of calling on states to ban cellphone use, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has used the bully pulpit in a national crusade against distracted driving. He has pushed for bans on text messaging and urges people to put their cellphones in the glove compartment while driving.
“Our message on distracted driving is simple: There’s no call or text message that’s so important that it can’t wait,” LaHood said.
In calling for a ban on all use of electronic devices while driving, the NTSB cited a series of fatal accidents in which they were deemed distractions.
In 2004, a bus driver using his hands-free cellphone struck the underside of an arched stone bridge on the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, injuring 11 high school students on board.
In 2008, the operator of a commuter train in California ran through a red signal while texting, colliding with a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring dozens.
In 2010, a barge being towed by a tugboat on the Delaware River in Philadelphia ran over a tour boat, killing two people. The NTSB determined that the tugboat mate was distracted by a cellphone and laptop computer.
In 2010, a tractor-trailer with a 53-foot-long trailer collided with a 15-passenger van in Kentucky, killing 11 people. The NTSB said the truck driver was distracted by his cellphone.
Most Americans — 88 percent according to one survey — acknowledge that cellphone use while driving is dangerous. But in the same survey by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, 35 percent of drivers said they had read or sent a text message while driving in the past month. Sixty-seven percent said they had talked on a cellphone while driving in the past month, and almost a third said they do it regularly.
Staff writer Mark Berman contributed to this report.