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Feds Seek Ban on Cellphone Use for Drivers

• December 13, 2011 • 2:42 PM

As past Miller-McCune articles have shown, driving while using your cellphone is a bad idea, and the U.S. government is doing its best to make sure you can hear that message now.

Last year, the U.S. Department of Transportation launched a new website, distraction.gov, to chide drivers about using cellphones (or “personal electronic devices,” PEDs) while they were behind the wheel. The feds had already told government employees they couldn’t text and drive while on Uncle Sam’s business, and later extended that rule to commercial truckers while on Sam Walton’s.

As Emily Badger wrote for us in February 2010, putting up a nagging website was really all the federal government could do to address what’s pretty much an issue for the states.

On Tuesday, DoT went a step further and called on the individual states and District of Columbia to enact a nationwide ban on PED use while driving. Lots of states have already set down that road, banning handheld cellphone use or texting — the Governors Highway Safety Association offers a handy chart here — but lots of states, such as Missouri, don’t.

And it was in Missouri a year ago August that a madly texting pickup driver helped engineer a crash that killed him and a passenger in a school bus while injuring another 35 people. The National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into that crash led to Tuesday’s call for a nationwide ban.

“The Missouri accident is the most recent distraction accident the NTSB has investigated,” the agency wrote in a release. “However, the first investigation involving distraction from a wireless electronic device occurred in 2002, when a novice driver, distracted by a conversation on her cellphone, veered off the roadway in Largo, Maryland, crossed the median, flipped the car over, and killed five people. Since then, the NTSB has seen the deadliness of distraction across all modes of transportation.”

As NTSB Chair Deborah A.P. Hersman said in making Tuesday’s recommendation, “We will never know whether the driver was typing, reaching for the phone, or reading a text when his pickup ran into the truck in front of him without warning. But, we do know he had been distracted — cognitively, manually, and visually — while driving.”

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Driving while distracted, or inattention blindness, are pretty well studied phenomena, especially if we go beyond the demon phone (and its unicycling clowns) and lump in the equally diabolical French fry or styling brush.

In reviewing a then-new device that disabled a driver’s cellphone once the car started, our Matt Palmquist suggested that researchers feared new technology was really better than the old — conversations with passengers, eating, drinking, lighting cigarettes, applying makeup, and listening to the radio” — at taking minds off the road. “There is good reason to believe that some of these new multitasking activities may be substantially more distracting than the old standards because they are more cognitively engaging and because they are performed over longer periods of time,” he quoted University of Utah psychology professor David Strayer. Strayer’s own research, Palmquist wrote, had determined that “the risk from cellphone use is as great as that of the intoxicated driver, only in different ways.”

(Our 2009 piece prefigured one aspect of Tuesday’s announcement: the NTSB urges the Wireless Association and the Consumer Electronics Association to develop technology that disables phones while vehicles are in motion.)

Might there be a more powerful weapon out there for convincing people to put down their PEDs, especially since even the government’s own statistics suggest this remains an uphill battle? We offer another cellphone-use warning from Palmquist: “Do it and you might get dumped.”

“According to University of Minnesota professor Paul Rosenblatt’s paper [in Family Science Review], communication with family members suffers for the same reasons cellphone use is hazardous to driving — it slows motorists’ reaction times and reduces their attention spans. “A delay in the conversation could be a problem if the person on the other end of the conversation interprets the delayed reaction as an indicator of ambivalence, of not having a ready answer or of hiding something.”

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Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

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