Following a meeting on a multi-vehicle highway accident last year in Gray Summit, Mo., the National Transportation Safety Board is calling for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of cell phones while driving a motor vehicle.
The NTSB's recommendation specifically calls for all 50 states and Washington D.C. to ban all nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The board also is urging the use of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.
"According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents," NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in a statement. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving. No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life."
On Aug. 5, 2010, on a section of Interstate 44 in Gray Summit, a pickup truck ran into the back of a truck-tractor that had slowed due to an active construction zone. The pickup truck, in turn, was struck from behind by a school bus. That school bus was then hit by a second school bus that had been following. Two people died and 38 others were injured in the accident.
The NTSB's investigation revealed that the pickup driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the accident. The last text was received moments before the pickup struck the truck-tractor. The NTSB said the Missouri accident is the most recent distraction accident the organization has investigated.
However, the first investigation involving a driver being distracted while using a wireless electronic device occurred in 2002, when a novice driver, distracted by a conversation on her cell phone, veered off the roadway in Largo, Md., 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, reporting incidents from coast to coast involving all manner of vehicles, including airliners, boats, buses and tractor-trailers.
The worst reported accident involving texting while operating a vehicle came in a 2008 collision of a commuter train with a freight train in Chatsworth, Calif. The commuter train engineer, who had a history of using his cell phone for personal communications while on duty, ran a red signal while texting. That train collided head on with a freight train, killing 25 people and injuring dozens more.
In the last two decades, there has been exponential growth in the use of cell phone and personal electronic devices, according to the NTSB. Globally, there are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers, or 77 percent of the world population. In the United States, that percentage is even higher, exceeding 100 percent. Further, a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of commercial drivers found that a safety-critical event is 163 times more likely if a driver is texting, emailing, or accessing the Internet.
"The data is clear; the time to act is now. How many more lives will be lost before we, as a society, change our attitudes about the deadliness of distractions?" Hersman said.