Feds urge all states to ban texting, tweeting on roads

Wednesday, December 14, 2011 | 1:35 p.m. CST; updated 6:58 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 14, 2011

LOS ANGELES — Ren Bishop is one of many American drivers who texts, tweets and talks on her cellphone while she's behind the wheel — and thinks it should be up to drivers to use their discretion when it comes to safety.

Although she admits thumbing her phone while driving is bad habit, the MU student said drivers "are mature enough to understand when it is appropriate and when it is not."

The National Transportation Safety Board disagrees, and it declared Tuesday that texting, emailing or chatting while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed anywhere in the United States.

The board is urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies. This follows recent deadly crashes, including one in Missouri after a teenager sent or received 11 text messages within 11 minutes.

The unanimous recommendation from the five-member board would apply even to hands-free devices, a much stricter rule than any current state law.

NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman acknowledged that complying would involve changing what has become ingrained behavior for many Americans.

"We're not here to win a popularity contest," she said. "No email, no text, no update, no call is worth a human life."

Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, while nine states and Washington, D.C., bar hand-held cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.

The immediate impetus for the NTSB's recommendation was last year's deadly pileup near Gray Summit, involving a 19-year-old pickup driver.

The board said the initial collision was caused by the teen's inattention while texting a friend about events of the previous night. The pickup, traveling 55 mph, hit the back of a tractor truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus, and a second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus.

The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured.

In Missouri, texting is illegal for drivers 21 and under, which means the law would have applied to the 19-year-old. But the ban isn't aggressively enforced, NTSB member Robert Sumwalt said.

"Without the enforcement, the laws don't mean a whole lot," he said.

The law didn't apply to 22-year-old Bishop when she was pulled over Monday night for swerving while texting at MU.

She blames a late night and schoolwork. The officer who stopped her told her to put her phone in the back seat and sent her home with a warning.

"I definitely have the bad habit of tweeting and driving, texting and driving, and updating my Facebook status," Bishop said. "I probably shouldn't, but the technology makes it too easy."

About two out of 10 American drivers overall — and half of drivers between 21 and 24 — say they've thumbed messages or emailed from the driver's seat, according to a survey of more than 6,000 drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

At any given moment last year on America's streets and highways, nearly one in every 100 car drivers was texting, emailing, surfing the Web or otherwise using a hand-held electronic device, the safety administration said. Those activities were up 50 percent from the previous year.

NTSB investigators said they are seeing increasing texting, cellphone calls and other distracting behavior by drivers in accidents involving all kinds of transportation. It has become routine to immediately request the preservation of cellphone and texting records when an investigation begins.

In the past few years, the board has investigated a train collision in which the engineer was texting that killed 25 people in Chatsworth, Calif., a fatal accident near Philadelphia in which a tugboat pilot was talking on his cellphone and using a laptop computer, and a Northwest Airlines flight that sped more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops.

Last year, a driver was dialing his cellphone when his truck crossed a highway median near Munfordville, Ky., and collided with a 15-passenger van. Eleven people were killed.

While the NTSB doesn't have the power to impose restrictions, its recommendations carry significant weight with federal regulators, Congress and state lawmakers. But the board's decision to include hands-free cellphone use in its recommendation is likely to prove especially controversial.

No states currently ban hands-free use, although many studies show that it is often as unsafe as hand-held phone use because drivers' minds are on their conversations rather than what's happening on the road.

Bike messenger Jesus Santa Rosa, 24, said he's seen a lot of accidents that are caused by people using their cellphones while he maneuvers through the streets of downtown Los Angeles.

"I've seen people taking red lights while they're looking down at their cellphones," said Santa Rosa. "And a lot of people get hit — bike messengers, pedestrians."

Santa Rosa said he was sideswiped by a woman who was exiting the freeway and charging onto downtown's surface streets at a high speed.

"This girl, when she stopped after she hit me, she was still talking on the phone as she got out of the car, like, telling someone she almost just killed someone," Santa Rosa said.

Still, he said a ban on hands-free devices would probably be going too far because "texting is more dangerous. They're not looking up."

Another NTSB recommendation Tuesday urges states to aggressively enforce current bans on text messaging and the use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices while driving.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported earlier this year that pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., produced significant reductions in distracted driving by combining stepped-up ticketing with high-profile public education campaigns.

Miami computer salesman Cully Waggoner, 50, agreed that texting is a danger to drivers but said enforcing bans is difficult. What may be more effective is harnessing technology to make technology safer, he said.

Perhaps phone manufacturers can be required to equip phones with a technology that disables texting and data packages if the phone is moving over a certain speed, Waggoner said.

"That would be the only way to get around to fixing anything: Go right to the technology that's being used," Waggoner said. Otherwise, "there's all kinds of laws on the books that people break every day; this would just be another one."

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Kevin Gamble December 14, 2011 | 2:46 p.m.

This is the flip side of technology. It enables, but it enables amorally. In cases like cell phones, it enables activity that would be physically impossible otherwise, but it also leaves only personal impulse control as the sole barrier between responsible and irresponsible use.

You can see similar things elsewhere. From anonymous online comment boards to texting while driving to illegal downloading of copyrighted material, technology is taking away physical barriers that previously enforced or reinforced healthy boundaries, leaving a state relatively free of accountability, with only impulse control as the barrier to "wrong" behavior.

There's a healthy debate in this country right now over "freedom" versus laws & regulations, and of course not all regulation is good. But I find it refreshing that, in the face of the technological tide, we can still step back and question something fundamental about how we work as a society. When we give up on that, we're in trouble.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 14, 2011 | 6:13 p.m.

I think that if someone chooses to drive distracted and has an at-fault accident (or other serious lapse of control of their vehicle), they should lose their license for some inconvenient period (2 years would be my suggestion). Second time, it's for life.

Cars are deadly weapons and the law needs to treat them as such, particularly since they're really luxuries for most people.

Kevin Gamble wrote:

"In cases like cell phones, it enables activity that would be physically impossible otherwise, but it also leaves only personal impulse control as the sole barrier between responsible and irresponsible use."

You can say much the same thing about most anything that humanity uses petroleum for.

Discovering petroleum was like giving a $50 billion inheritance to a 9 year old child. There's no way it could get used wisely.


(Report Comment)
frank christian December 14, 2011 | 7:38 p.m.

"Discovering petroleum was like giving a $50 billion inheritance to a 9 year old child. There's no way it could get used wisely." An unbelievable assertion. Trying to list the wise uses of petroleum since a yo-yo and two others figured out how to drill,(baby) in Pennsylvania for it would take a lifetime and I could run short there. You, better than most could probably, best list the beneficial, lifesaving, uses of petroleum. Why not?

(Report Comment)
Michael Williams December 14, 2011 | 9:07 p.m.

It would be interesting to see the change in our lives (and the things around us) if all of a sudden "poof!"....every petroleum-based product magically disappeared in an instant.

I go with Frank on this one. The products we've made from petroleum stagger the imagination. Most have been wise uses.

Petroleum provides a unique and extraordinarily complex mixture of carbon-based chemicals. Carbon atoms (along with hydrogen) are arranged together...complete with high energy C-C and C-H bonds constructed long, long ways hard to replicate in a laboratory reactor within a short time frame. Since these chemicals are already "made" (and already a liquid), the number of chemical manipulations (re-making/breaking bonds, distillation and separation, etc.) needed to make useful products is minimized. I hate to think of the energy expenditures and complex reactions required to make synthesis materials from raw materials like CO2 or limestone or any other carbon source in any sort of laboratory- or factory-type setting.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 23, 2011 | 2:43 a.m.

The trouble is that the volume of petroleum used wisely is a tiny fraction of our total petroleum use. Chemicals and pharmaceuticals are tremendously beneficial, and agricultural uses are also pretty good.

But when you talk about using 90 units of petroleum to move one unit of person (your average drive-alone driver in a 20 mpg car), that's a very wasteful use of an irreplaceable commodity. Aw Michael wrote, there is no ready alternative to making it. Unfortunately that is what makes up the bulk of US petroleum consumption for transportation.

We are smart enough to figure out all sorts of uses for this incredible gift that nature dropped in our laps. We're not smart enough to figure how to replace it on any sort of realistic scale. And the physics of alternatives suck. Numbers on request.

We're burning up our grandkid's future for our own frivolous comfort and convenience. Personally, I'd like to see the automobile put in the same category as we put firearms, or alcohol and tobacco. They're certainly as or more dangerous and addictive as any of those commodities. Except we're so in love with the damned things.

Don't worry. The junkies are running the phsrmacy. No legislator in his right mind will consider any legislation that would make it harder to drive, or easier to use alternatives. The people that will worry about it aren't alive yet, or still young children. They'll look back on our times with a profound sense of sadness.


(Report Comment)
frank christian December 23, 2011 | 9:07 a.m.

"We are smart enough to figure out all sorts of uses for this incredible gift that nature dropped in our laps. We're not smart enough to figure how to replace it on any sort of realistic scale." Why not add the word Yet! to your final sentence, then contemplate the future you are prescribing. Other people were living your "dream" in the 40-50's. No one liked it and that was the only shot at life (as far as I know)any of them ever got. Merry Christmas, Mark!

(Report Comment)
John Schmidt December 23, 2011 | 10:18 a.m.

I remember seeing a lot of old crummy cars that were made in the thirties, forties, and fifties. Most were in junkyards.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking December 24, 2011 | 2:48 a.m.

frank christian wrote:

"Why not add the word Yet! to your final sentence, then contemplate the future you are prescribing."

The reason we use petroleum instead of alternatives is all the alternatives are inferior in some way. It's largely a matter of physics and chemistry, not ingenuity.

You've been fooled by the easy energy trap of petroleum - that since man discovered it, he is responsible for making its easy energy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Nature made it, and man cannot duplicate it, at least not at the wasteful scale that we use it. That's "cannot" with the same certainty that man cannot fly without aid.

Merry Christmas to you too, Frank.


(Report Comment)

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