There is growing evidence that motorists who are talking on cell phones are a road hazard, with some studies concluding that their threat is similar to — or even greater than — that of a drunken driver.
But a recommendation this week by the five-member National Transportation Safety Board to ban all cell phone use by the driver of a vehicle goes too far as it didn’t distinguish between hands-free and hand-held phones.
The board appears to be overreacting to an accident in Missouri last year that killed two people and injured 38 more. That accident, a pileup that included a school bus with about 50 students, happened when a teenager drove a pick-up truck into the back of a tractor-trailer, causing a chain reaction. An investigation showed that the teenager had sent or received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes leading up to the crash.
North Carolina already bans operators of motor vehicles from sending text messages, and provisional drivers, those under the age of 18, are banned from talking on a cell phone as well. House Bill 44, which was sponsored by Rep. Garland Pierce, who represents part of Robeson County, sought to ban drivers from using hand-held and hands-free cell phones, but failed to be approved this year even when the hands-free provision was dropped from the bill.
Banning cell phone use by drivers of a vehicle would save some lives and limbs. So would a speed limit of 35 mph on Interstate 95, but no one would suggest that is practical. How far down this road do we travel? Would the banning of loud music in a vehicle be next? A prohibition on enjoying a chocolate nut sundae while driving? Forbidding a woman from checking her lipstick in the rear-view mirror?
In today’s fast-food society, where every second seems to count, there is considerable commerce that is advanced by motorists on cell phones who otherwise would struggle to find the time for that conversation. But the convenience extends beyond doing business and to all aspects of our lives.
Ideally, drivers would limit cell phone use to conversations that, while short of a 911 call, were necessary. But there is simply no way to ensure that through legislation.
We understand the push to ban the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers. Such a cell phone occupies a hand that should be in either the 10 or 2 o’clock position on the steering wheel. But why ban a hands-free device that doesn’t take a hand off the wheel, and allows a driver to join a conversation not unlike one with a passenger in the car.
The NTSB doesn’t have the power to impose the restrictions, but its recommendations do carry weight with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers. So this conversation will continue, but it should focus only on hand-held devices or the reach will be too far.