NTSB's Call for Cell Phone Drive Ban: Who Will Answer?

NEWS ANALYSIS: The NTSB wants to make highways safer for drivers. However, banning talking on cell phones is a complicated endeavor.

The National Transportation Safety Board has issued a recommendation that states pass laws to ban the use of cell phones for all drivers. The recommended ban, which the NTSB officially announced Dec. 12, has merit, especially in light of the tragic accident Aug. 5, 2010, in Gray Summit, Mo., in which the driver of a pickup truck sent 11 text messages in the 11 minutes prior to the accident that killed him and injured a number of passengers on two school buses.

"More than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents", said NTSB Chairwoman Deborah Hersman. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving. No call, text or update is worth a human life."

While the ban on the use of cell phones while driving is admirable, regulation, monitoring and enforcement is another matter. There also must be some provisions for emergency use when, for example, the driver needs to make a call regarding a life-threatening situation.

The most straightforward way to ensure that the person driving is not using their cell phone is to disable the smartphone while the car is moving. A number of companies have announced a variety of solutions that use mobile technology to prevent calling or texting while driving: Illume Software (izup), ZoomSafer, txtBlocker, DriveSafe.ly (from iSpeech) and odbEdge (CellControl) are all developing systems that work in various ways to prevent calling and texting while driving.

Additionally, a new area of law is going to develop around the topic of the legality and liability of people using a cell phone while driving. How do you know if someone is texting while driving if they are holding the phone in their lap, or texting with the phone on the seat or the midsection between the front seats? What if you have a medical emergency and need to call for help? How do you disable the software for an emergency?

It's easy to see there is going to be a lot of confusion on how to enforce the new laws. You can hear an attorney's argument to the court right now: "My client wasn't texting. He was simply listening to music on his phone."

These software solutions use GPS to determine if you're driving on a highway. The software runs in the background of a smartphone and comes to life when it detects that the device is moving faster than a preset velocity, typically 5 mph. Once it detects that the phone is moving, it makes the phone temporarily inoperable, except in the case of emergency calls to a few preset numbers. Subscribers cannot text or make phone calls while the car is moving.

Some versions of the control software use mapping information, as well as GPS, so the software can detect whether the driver is actually driving on a highway, or sitting on a train or using mass transit.

I believe that the solution to this problem lies with the insurance industry. Insurers can set prices much higher if the insured doesn't have the software that disables the phone once the car is moving.

Consequently, if you have the software installed, your insurance rates will drop.

Longer term-I would say in 20 or 30 years-the technology should be in place to eliminate the need for people to drive their vehicles at all. Instead, people will input the destination through a keyboard or control panel, select a place on a map or verbalize the location, and the car's control systems will simply take you to that destination.

When that happens, you can return to using your cell phone to make calls, read emails or do text messaging while the car is moving.

In the meantime, do yourself, your fellow drivers and your loved ones a favor: Put your phone down while you're driving. Or pull over to the side of the road if you have to send an important message or make an important call. It should be obvious that hands-free cellular voice is much less distracting than texting or replying to email and, therefore, won't likely be outlawed. It shouldn't take the NTSB to dictate common sense rules when Americans drive.