It’s amazing how quickly Americans have become devoted to, even dependent on, their cellphones — and how reluctant they are to temper their use of instant communication devices even in a life-saving cause.
This week, the National Transportation Safety Board unanimously recommended that all states adopt laws that ban drivers from talking, texting, surfing the Internet or otherwise turning their attention to a cellphone or mobile device, even if they are using hands-free technology. The NTSB doesn’t have the power to enforce such restrictions, but its recommendations can be used as a basis for things like how much federal highway money a state will receive. The NTSB’s 1995 recommendation that state legislatures pass a primary seat belt law is an example.
NTSB officials acknowledged that the cellphone recommendation wouldn’t be popular and that it would be difficult to change a behavior that had become so ingrained across the nation. However, the connection between cellphone use and accidents — sometimes fatal accidents — was just too great to ignore, they said.
As predicted, many individuals and industry groups quickly jumped in to discount the dangers of cellphone use. They make some valid points, including that overall traffic fatalities have declined in the U.S. in recent years and that cellphones are just one of many distractions that can contribute to a traffic accident. They are particularly critical of the ban on hands-free phone use, which they say poses no greater distraction than a conversation with a passenger riding in the car.
Several studies confirm the distracting impact of cellphones, and anecdotal evidence is strong. Think about how many times you’ve seen a driver take an erratic, potentially dangerous, action while holding a cellphone to his or her ear. Think honestly about your own cellphone use. Even if you’re using a hands-free device, the distraction of talking on the phone is different — and often more complete — than the distraction of a live conversation in the car. Can you honestly say you’ve never been on the phone having a significant personal or business conversation and then realized you’ve traveled some distance, perhaps many miles, with little attention to or awareness of your driving or the traffic around you?
People are quick to contend that talking on the phone doesn’t significantly impair their ability to drive. Drunken drivers often have the same erroneous perception of their driving ability.
Another way to think about this is to consider just how essential it is to be able to talk on the phone when driving. Obviously, we got along fine without that ability before a decade or two ago. The NTSB would allow phones to be used in emergency situations, but most calls obviously don’t fall into that category. If the phone rings, while you’re driving, is it really that inconvenient to wait until you can safely pull over and return the call? That inconvenience seems minor compared to the danger posed by streets and highways filled with drivers paying more attention to their mobile communication devices than to their driving.
Kansas already has laws banning texting by all drivers and the use of any mobile communications device by drivers on instruction permits or restricted licenses. A broader ban on the use of mobile devices won’t be popular, but it deserves some serious consideration in Kansas and across the nation.