‘It’s time’: Ban all cell phone use by drivers

NTSB chairwoman Deborah HersmanSomeone had to go first. The National Transportation Safety Board just jumped through the burning hoop, and the national debate over electronic distracted driving abruptly shifted to discussion of a complete ban on cell phones and similar devices.

About time.

Proponents and foes of laws against distracted driving agree, oddly enough, that the watery prohibitions being dispensed by many states are of little use and make little sense. The legislative “compromise” of saddling distracted driving laws with secondary enforcement is a joke. What if speeding tickets were only handed out if drivers actually caused a wreck, injury or death?

Asking law officers to figure out whether a cell phone user is dialing a number or typing a message borders on absurdity. Yet that’s the task in states that banned texting but continue to allow handheld cell phone use. The result: Few law enforcement agencies in these states bother to write tickets for text messaging, the most dangerous of distracted driving behaviors.

The NTSB only makes recommendations. Even if it had rule-making authority (as does the U.S. DOT), it could not tell states what to do with their traffic laws.

The feds, however, have a way of getting their way, using the carrot or the stick. Federal grants were used to encourage states to use primary enforcement on seat belt laws. States that failed to raise their drinking ages to 21 complied after facing disastrous cutoffs of federal highway funding. A plan to use incentive grants for electronic distracted driving laws is making its way through Congress, although prospects remain uncertain.

One lawmaker said the other day that a complete cell phone ban would be “the most ignored law since Prohibition.” Maybe so, but most Americans obey the law because it’s the law. Young drivers are taught the law. Good cops and judges enforce the law.

NTSB chairwoman Deborah Hersman (pictured) points out that the increasing sophistication of smartphones — personal computers, really — makes the dangers more acute than even a few years ago. The debate about much more than simple phone calls.

“This is a difficult recommendation, but it’s the right recommendation and it’s time,” Hersman said.

Drivers who choose to be distracted by cell phones and texting devices should pay increasingly severe fines and face loss of their licenses. Those who kill with their arrogant carelessness should be treated as killers under manslaughter laws.

States that fail to enforce their own electronic distracted driving laws, such as Wisconsin, should suffer a graduated loss of federal funds. Dumb and dumber states — notably my birthplace of Florida — that refuse to enact any distracted driving laws must be incentivized and punished. They are in need of adult supervision.

There exists a malignant hypocrisy in the distracted driving debate, with guilty parties on both sides — lawmakers, federal and state agencies, the media, law enforcement, researchers, cell phone companies and automakers, etc. That hypocrisy is acting as if there were myriad subtleties, considerations and courses of action here.

The time for lip service and game-playing grows short, while the list of the dead and wounded grows longer. The NTSB has it right: Ban all non-emergency cell phone use by U.S. drivers.


  1. Shelley says:

    I was behind a person who was all over the road, and couldn’t seem to decide what speed to go, even on a 2-lane city street, I tried honking, nothing changed. When I finally got to get around safely, he didn’t notice…had his head on the cell phone, texting. I’d wonder where’s a cop when you need one, but one of the first people caught causing an accident when Minnesota’s law passed, an off-duty state patrol officer.

  2. Al Cinamon says:

    The statement is made that, “the watery prohibitions being dispensed by many states are of little use and make little sense.” Wrong! They make a lot of sense….if you just follow the money. States don’t care about safety. They care about raising revenue. That’s why they ban only hand-held phones and allow hands-free. The truth of the matter is that the conversation is the distraction. Holding the phone is not the problem. If that were true, then they should ban holding a cup of coffee, a lipstick, a pencil…and maybe picking your nose.

  3. JamesCalvin says:

    One size (law) does not fit all people! Test and certify be licensing to use a cell phone! We do this for obtaining a pilot’s license.

  4. What is the difference, really, between talking on a cell phone and and singing along with the radio??? Are you going to ban radio’s in vehicles next? I have hands free in my car, I use it and support that people go hands free by speaker or bluetooth device. But banning them totally really is crazy. Besides most of the legislation talks about smart phones, which I do not have, why should I have to pay for something I don’t have. Make them buy extra Insurance for that device.

  5. I think it is wrong to force a cellphone ban on people. I am going to fight this legally anyway I can. I can deal with handsfree or not texting, but not a total ban.

  6. Bob Andres says:

    While the goal of eliminating ALL cellphone use while driving appears ideal, it is unrealistic at this time. Although some of our members of our Florida chapter of the American Society of Safety Engineers disagree, we should be concentrating on eliminating the practice that creates the greatest risk – TEXTING WHILE DRIVING.

    Not only does this practice afford the highest risk, it is also the easiest for a law enforcement officer to detect. New York recently named vehicular cellphone use as a primary offense – but it took several years to do so. Handsfree cellphone use is still permitted. I agree with both conditions.

    In Florida, we need to pass legislation that will immediately prohibit texting while driving. Next year, we can talk about expanding the legislation to include handheld use. As a staunch conservative, I call upon Gov. Scott to support legislation banning texting while driving. There are a few areas where government can be most effective – and this is one of them.

    Director of Government and Public Affairs
    Florida Suncoast Chapter, ASSE

  7. roger watson says:

    ban cell phones while driving

  8. This of course is a good start, but the real solution is in technology.

    The technology exists where mobile devices, including Wi-Fi connections, can be blocked (other than emergency calls), until the vehicle is in “Park” or turned off.

    I drive 200 + miles per day, and see people cradling their cell phone while holding their I-pad (or even a notebook on the dashboard) against the steering wheel with one hand, while the other hand is shuffling papers on the steering wheel as well.

    Its’ time to end this madness… there is no one on this earth who is that important. This behavior is a time management problem.

  9. Well, what’s making its way through Congress regarding distracted driving wouldn’t have sanctions, like the 21 drinking age. It would instead offer incentives to states to pass certain distracted driving laws. The incentive route is what was used for seatbelts.

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