published Thursday, December 15th, 2011

Ban on cell use urged

A raft of reports in recent years has documented the burgeoning problem of drivers who drive while dangerously distracted by cellphones, texting and other rising uses of mobile devices. So while it may be disheartening to users of such devices, it should come as no surprise that the National Transportation Safety Board has finally taken a firm decision to urge states to ban drivers' use of hands-free devices, including wireless headsets.

The NTSB's recommendation springs from a decade of in-depth studies into distraction-related accidents, including those by airline and tugboat pilots as well as auto drivers. These have, indeed, become legend. Another widely noted chain collision this week was caused by a 19-year-old near St. Louis who had sent or received 11 text messages in 11 minutes just before he plowed into the back of a tractor truck. The tragedy that piled up around him involved two fatalities and injuries to a number of students riding in two school buses that also slammed into the tractor truck.

The needless toll of deaths and injuries caused by distracted drivers is now as appalling as it is frequent. Though nine states now ban the use of hand-held phones and 35 ban texting, it's become obvious that states' current laws are not adequate to curb the growing trends of distracted driving and the variety of mobile devices they use.

The Governors' Highway Safety Association also recognizes that states are moving far too slowly to address the soaring availability and use of tempting apps and mobile options that drivers are embracing. Barbara Harsha, the Association's executive director, termed the NTSB's recommendation "courageous" and said it would prompt serious consideration of outright bans, even though some citizens and communications companies will lobby against it.

The NTSB has no authority to create or enforce a ban on use of mobile devices by drivers, but it's expert advice should be heeded. Studies in more than 30 other countries have confirmed the same deadly but rising trends.

"It's about cognitive distraction, ... about not being engaged in the task at hand," said the NTSB chairman, Deborah Hersman. "Lives are being lost in the blink of an eye. You can't take it back. You can't have a do-over, and you can't rewind."

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