IT IS DISTURBINGLY commonplace: the driver with eyes cast down as he texts. The teen behind the wheel chatting away on a Bluetooth device in his ear. Cellphones, Blackberrys, electronic tablets and other personal electronic devices have dramatically changed the way most people go about their lives and do their work — and largely for the better. But irresponsible use of these revolutionary instruments has also introduced serious hazards.
Last year, about eight people died each day in vehicle accidents linked to distracted driving and the use of electronic devices. These 3,029 avoidable tragedies were a catalyst for the National Transportation Safety Board’s groundbreaking and potentially life-saving “no call, no text, no update” proposal last week. The board unanimously urged states and the District to pass legislation banning the use of personal electronic devices while driving; this would include prohibiting the use of “hands-free” devices, such as Bluetooth earpieces or headsets. The board proposed a narrow exception for emergencies for personal safety, reporting an accident or alerting police to a drunk driver. It also called on the CTIA-The Wireless Association and the Consumer Electronics Association to encourage development of technology that would disable portable devices that are within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion but could be overridden in emergency situations. The proposal would not affect devices, such as OnStar, that are embedded in vehicles; NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman says there are not enough data on the effects of embedded devices but that the board will assess these in the near future.
The dangers of texting while driving have been thoroughly documented, including in a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, which showed that texting renders drivers 23 times more likely to have an accident or a close call. Thirty-five states and the District have banned texting while driving in the last three years.
States have been slower to prohibit cellphone conversations. Yet studies show that speaking on a cellphone while driving distracts a driver more than listening to music or speaking with a passenger. The District and 10 states, including Maryland, prohibit talking on a hand-held device while driving, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The use of a hands-free device does not appear to diminish the risks and in some cases may increase them. Research has shown that drivers who speak on hand-held devices at least tend to compensate by slowing down, while those on hand-free devices tend not to display more caution.
The American Insurance Association, which supports a total ban, calls the use of mobile devices by drivers “a major epidemic in our country.” Public awareness, legislation and enforcement are key to weaning drivers off of these devices. It should not take another 3,000 deaths.