The group, composed of the top highway safety officers from each state, previously supported text messaging bans for all drivers and limits on electronic device use by teen drivers. But it had stopped short of endorsing bans on handheld cell phone use by all drivers, saying research was inconclusive.
Almost all public safety groups and transportation agencies have long been on the record against use of handheld cell phones by drivers.
The GHSA move, announced Sept. 6, isn’t much of a surprise as the federal government is in the process of handing out incentive grants to states that adopt comprehensive electronic distracted driving laws. (The total handheld cell phone bans sought by the GHSA go farther than the minimum requirements for grant eligibility.)
DOT chief Ray LaHood cheered the GHSA move: “The resolution passed today (by the GHSA) reflects the commitment of state traffic safety officials to ending this dangerous behavior, and the critical role they play in passing and enforcing strong state laws banning distracted driving.” LaHood’s department ultimately oversees the grant program.
The highway safety officials cited success of the DOT-funded distracted driving crackdowns in New York state and Connecticut.
The GHSA also echoed the familiar concerns of state and local law enforcement: “While texting and handheld bans are both critical, texting bans by themselves can be difficult to enforce,” the group said. “In states with texting but not handheld bans (currently 29 states), a driver may claim they were dialing a phone number when stopped by a police officer.”
The group also flirted with the issue of whether all cell phone use by drivers should be prohibited. “Passage of these laws will provide states a practical platform for discussing why any phone use while driving is dangerous,” GHSA executive director Barbara Harsha said.
In late 2011, the topic of total bans on driving while using cell phones came to the forefront as the National Transportation Safety Board called for a complete ban. LaHood distanced himself from that position. “The problem is not hands-free,” the DOT chief said.
Ten states have have banned handheld cell phone use by all drivers, while 39 states have banned text messaging while behind the wheel. The federal distracted driving grants provide about $78 million in incentives for states that ban text messaging for all drivers and the use of handheld cell phones by young drivers. States that do not would not share in this additional funding but would not lose existing funding.
The GHSA distracted driving policy change, voted upon at the group’s annual meeting in August, was made public Sept. 6.
The new policy specifies:
GHSA supports state legislation that would ban hand-held cell phone use and text messaging for all drivers, electronic devices used for entertainment purposes with video screens that are within view of the driver and school bus drivers from text messaging or using electronic devices except in an emergency.