Banning cell phone usage while driving won't happen nationwide

The cat's already out of the bag with regulations on driving while talking or texting on a cell phone. Unfortunately, it's too late to affect the kind of changes that the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended on Tuesday.

The NTSB recommended that all 50 states and DC enact laws to outlaw the use of all electronic devices while driving, including cell phones that use hands-free devices.

The NTSB has some of the most thorough investigators of any federal agency, and deserves our attention. Their investigators have affected changes in seat belt laws and other areas. But coming up with this recommendation now, at least six years after many states began debating laws in this area, is ineffectual. Only 34 states now ban texting while driving, and only 10 ban calling while driving, but the laws that passed in those states only came after plenty of lobbying, consternation and often years of consideration.

In fact, NTSB's recommendation almost sounds like the federal government has given up, and that its only role in national policy related to cell phone usage while driving is to comment and HOPE that states will listen. Or, possibly NTSB  hopes that Americans will rise up and demand these laws from their state legislators, when in fact most Americans can't even name the city of their own state capital or the name of a single state legislator. (And this is where the national media, including me, have failed, because we like to cover the singular voice of government in Washington and tend to ignore the states or the important matters they consider.)

One commentator suggested that the NTSB recommendation could be intended to push private businesses to demand their employees never use a cell phone while driving.  Some companies already do that, but that approach seems like a very lame way to effect wholesale change. 

Americans seem to have forgotten that states have control over laws for education and use of public roads and many other areas, even though Congress holds the purse strings for financial assistance in such areas. Still, the patchwork of state laws in effect for driving and cell phone use shows how ridiculous things have become.  If you drive in one state on the East Coast, you might have to stop calling on your phone, but not in the next one.  That's an argument for uniformity, the kind that Congress can't impose based on our Constitution, which recognizes the power of each state.

Still, some things seem so clear, including how distracting the use of a cell phone can be while driving.  But state legislators I've interviewed are told by lobbyists for wireless carriers and individual rights activitists that these distractions are no worse than other things, like eating French Fries, reading a map or listening to loud music while driving.  I've actually seen (and I'm not making this  up!) a man shaving his face with a safety razor and shaving cream while he was driving on the Capitol Beltway. 

Some legislators feel laws in this area are ineffective or an imposition on an individual's right, and maybe they are right. Still, in my opinion, if all the states had a strong law that was similar to California's back in 2008, we would not have seen as many distracted driving deaths in 2010.  In fact, a law banning cell phone or electronics use while driving might actually make drivers, especially young drivers, realize that any distraction from even a loud radio or from eating a snack can create a risk.  

While the cell phone industry and the CTIA have been clear about the distraction of texting while driving, the industry really should have been more willing to push for stronger laws that banned cell phone usage while driving like the one that California passed years ago.  Instead, the CTIA's attitude is one that says there will be MORE technology created that will eventually evolve that can turn off all communications easily and thoroughly when a person is driving.  The CTIA is right, but the promise of that emerging technology doesn't obviate the need for state laws.  There is going to be plenty of cell phone purchasing and adoption without worrying over whether sales or the popularity of wireless communications could be hurt by another state law on cell phones and driving.

The fact that a federal agency couldn't get out in front on recommending this ban at the start of the Obama Administration three years ago is a shame. It shows how the federal government has fallen into making reactions to what the states do or don't do instead of actually being able to lead. It's an indictment of how our culture can build great technology and then forget that it's the people who use the technology who matter far more.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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