WASHINGTON — Texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed, federal safety investigators declared Tuesday, urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.
Inspired by recent deadly crashes, the recommendation would apply even to hands-free devices, a much stricter rule than any current state law.
"No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life," said NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving."
A group representing state highway safety offices called the recommendation "a game-changer."
"States aren't ready to support a total ban yet, but this may start the discussion," Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said.
While the NTSB doesn't have the power to impose restrictions, its recommendations carry significant weight with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers. Another recommendation issued Tuesday urges states to aggressively enforce current bans on text messaging and the use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices while driving.
Florida remains one of 15 states without a ban on texting while driving. Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban the practice, while nine states and D.C. bar hand-held cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.
Though he has stopped short of calling on states to ban cellphone use, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has used the bully pulpit in a national crusade against distracted driving. He has pushed for bans on text messaging and urges people to put their cellphones in the glove compartment while driving.
The immediate impetus for the recommendation of state bans was a deadly highway pileup near Gray Summit, Mo., last year in which a 19-year-old pickup driver sent and received 11 texts in 11 minutes just before the accident.
The board said the pickup driver was texting a friend about events of the previous night. The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, hit the back of a truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus that overrode the smaller vehicle. A second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus.
The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured. About 50 students, mostly members of a high school band from St. James, Mo., were on the buses heading to the Six Flags St. Louis amusement park.
Missouri had a law banning drivers under 21 years old from texting while driving at the time of the crash but wasn't aggressively enforcing the ban, board member Robert Sumwalt said.
"Without the enforcement, the laws don't mean a whole lot," he said.
The board's decision to include hands-free cellphone use in its recommendation is likely to prove especially controversial. No states currently ban hand-free use although many studies show that it is often as unsafe as hand-held phone use because drivers' minds are on their conversations rather than what's happening on the road.
Hersman pointed to an Alexandria, Va., accident the board investigated in which a bus driver talking on a hands-free phone ran into a bridge despite his being familiar with the route and the presence of warning signs that the arch was too low for his bus to clear. The roof of the bus was sheared off.
The board has previously recommended bans on texting and cellphone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and beginning drivers, but it had stopped short of calling for a ban on the use of the devices by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.
Information from the Washington Post was included in this report.