Call to ban handheld cell use in cars likely to go unheeded
February 1, 2012
By now, almost everybody who wants a cellphone has one - or more.
According to the CTIA, the group formerly known as the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, cellular phone use is more than 100 percent in the United States. There are almost 323 million cellular subscribers in a country of 312 million people.
That’s why the National Transportation Safety Board’s December 2011 policy statement asking for a nationwide ban on the use of cellphones while driving is unlikely to go very far.
The NTSB wants no exemptions for experienced drivers or hands-free devices, either. I’m sure that wasn’t what the makers of Bluetooth headsets and in-car entertainment systems wanted to hear.
The crusadeCan’t say I’m surprised by the announcement, though. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has been crusading on the distracted-driving issue for some time, although he’s been quieter recently. But as I wrote in an article from January 2011, “Driving to distraction,” many experts now believe headsets or speakerphones make little difference when it comes to these types of mental distractions.
A ban would have to come from the states, although the government could prod legislatures by withholding federal roads money similar to the way seat belt and 0.08 blood-alcohol content drunk-driving laws were passed.
In its recommendation, the NTSB called cell phone use “the new DUI.”
I still think enacting such a law won’t be easy or very quick. It took more than a decade to get blood-alcohol limits lowered from 0.10 everywhere, and New Hampshire still doesn’t mandate seat belts 25 years after Ronald Reagan signed the bill. No state currently bans all cell use by drivers, and only nine mandate hands-free devices. A recent study said 75 percent of drivers answer calls while behind the wheel - even though they don’t think other drivers should.
An unpopular issue?LaHood had recently moderated his tone on outlawing cellphone headsets in cars, calling for more study on the issue - possibly a sign the Obama administration does not want to take on another unpopular fight. And a few days after the NTSB issued its recommendation, LaHood said hands-free cell use is not as big an issue as texting and handheld calling, and he would not push for such a ban.
However, the safety board is expected to release another study on the distractions of hands-free devices sometime this year, a move that could prompt LaHood to change his mind.
Either way, the NTSB can only recommend policy, and federal and state lawmakers are free to ignore them, as they sometimes do. The board has long advocated mandatory motorcycle helmet laws - it even renewed calls in 2010 for all 50 states to adopt them - but no new states have done so, and helmets remain optional for at least some riders in 30 states. And Congress shows no interest in tying road money to helmet laws, as was done in the early 1970s.
The disinterest of lawmakers in enacting bans isn’t preventing many HVAC and sheet metal companies from putting in their own restrictions, as I noted in our 2011 article. For now, many of those companies still permit salespeople and technicians to at least use hands-free devices like headsets while they drive, as long as it is safe to do so.
I wonder if the NTSB’s recommendation or its forthcoming study will start to change that.
So what do you think? Has the board’s finding changed your opinion or your company’s policy? Email me at email@example.com and let me know.