State highway safety chiefs want to outlaw hand-held cellphone use by drivers

A national coalition of state highway safety officials on Thursday called for outlawing all hand-held use of cellphones while behind the wheel.

The recommendation by the Governors Highway Safety Association carries particular weight because its members are the chief highway safety officers in each state. Regulation of mobile device use by drivers falls in the purview of state legislatures, where lawmakers in many states have been hesitant to tackle the cellphone issue and endure the public backlash.

“Passage of these laws will provide states a practical platform for discussing why any phone use while driving is dangerous,” GHSA Executive Director Barbara Harsha said.

A ban on hand-held use could be the first step toward what some experts argue is the real solution: a ban on any cellphone use in moving vehicles. Several studies have shown that requiring drivers to use hands-free devices to talk on their cellphones does little to minimize the distraction caused by a conversation. The National Transportation Safety Board last year recommended a total ban on using mobile devices to hold conversations or send text messages while driving.

The National Safety Council has estimated that about one-quarter of all crashes — about 1.2 million accidents a year — involve cellphones or texting. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in 2009 in accidents that involved distracted driving. NHTSA said that accounted for about 16 percent of all traffic deaths.

The Pew Research Center reported that 88 percent of those it surveyed in April own a cellphone.

The national campaign against distracted driving has been led by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who recognized at the outset that weaning American drivers from their treasured cellphones would take time. He began by pushing states to outlaw sending and receiving text messages, while urging people to put their mobile devices in the glove compartment while driving.

“The resolution [the GHSA] passed today reflects the commitment of state traffic safety officials to ending this dangerous behavior, and the critical role they play in passing and enforcing strong state laws banning distracted driving,” LaHood said. “With our partners in the states, we will continue to urge drivers to take personal responsibility for safety by putting their phone in the glove compartment and keeping their focus on the road.”

The GHSA already supported text messaging bans for all drivers, as well as a ban on all use of electronic devices for novice drivers and school bus drivers. Thirty-nine states and the District ban texting, while the District and 10 states ban hand-held cellphone use.

In the District, hand-held use of cellphones and texting are primary offenses, which means a driver can be pulled over for doing either. In Maryland, texting is a primary offense, but to issue a ticket for cellphone use, a police officer must cite another reason for stopping the driver. In Virginia, hand-held use is legal and texting is a secondary offense.

In announcing the hardened position, the GHSA cited federally funded demonstration projects in Hartford, Conn., and Syracuse, N.Y., that showed hand-held cellphone bans could be effectively enforced.

Ashley Halsey reports on national and local transportation.
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