WHAT OTHERS SAY: Don't ban cellphones in vehicles — yet

Thursday, December 15, 2011 | 4:44 p.m. CST

A federal recommendation that use of hand-held devices by motorists be banned makes sense — up to a point. Texting or surfing the Internet while driving are extremely dangerous.

But the National Transportation Safety Board also urged bans on any use of hands-free and hands-held cellphones in vehicles except — inexplicably — phone devices installed in some new vehicles by manufacturers.

Those restrictions at this point would generate strong resistance from the public and be difficult to enforce.

The safety board’s recommendation arose from the investigation of a gruesome crash near Gray Summit in August. In the 13 minutes preceding the wreck, a 19-year-old motorist sent or received 11 text messages while driving on Interstate 44.

He crashed into the rear of a slowing tractor-trailer, triggering a chain reaction that killed him and a 15-year-old girl on a school bus.

Last year, 3,092 people died in crashes involving distractions. But that came amid an overall drop in fatalities: In 2010, highway deaths hit their lowest point in more than 60 years, even though the 46 million miles traveled was higher than in 2009.

Politically, it would be tough to impose a blanket restriction on devices used by so many people even while highway travel, overall, is safer. But distracted driving is an increasing problem, and there are steps lawmakers in our region should take.

Kansas has rightly imposed a blanket ban on texting while driving. Missouri went in for a bit of unfortunate hairsplitting: Texting is fine if you’re 21 or older but a no-no if you’re not. This makes no sense, given the level of distraction involved. It also complicates enforcement.

University of Kansas professor Paul Atchley has conducted both lab studies and research using a simulator.

“The brain can only do one thing at a time,” he said. “If you’re talking and trying to drive, your brain has to take resources away from something else, like your eyes. You don’t see as much on the road. Hands-free or hand-held, it doesn’t make any difference.”

The problem, he said, is that conversations are “socially demanding,” so it’s difficult not to focus on the talk. In terms of impairment, phone conversations are equivalent to drunk driving. A driver is up to 500 percent more likely to have an accident, Atchley said.

Some states have already moved in the direction of tougher restrictions. California bans all use of hand-held phones. The federal safety board can’t compel states to pass laws, but it has done a service in jump-starting this debate.

In view of the findings, states should do more to further reduce the rate of fatalities.

Copyright, Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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