Cell Phone Bans Fall Short on Solving the Problem

by Staff | December 23rd, 2011

Prior to the Thanksgiving Day weekend, the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) announced a “final rule” prohibiting interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand held cell phones in their vehicles.

Two weeks later, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for a nationwide ban on the use of cell phones and text messaging devices while driving.

This author has previously written about the stepped-up enforcement of local bans in this area (“Woodmere to Enforce Ban on Cell Phones”), and about whether local, state and national regulators were doing enough to solve the problem of the distracted driver (“Are We Doing Enough About The Distracted Driver?”).  While this national effort to curb the use of cell phones is a promising start, it falls far short of solving the problem.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Commission (NHTSA), over 5,000 deaths are caused each year by the distracted driver.  Distracted drivers are not just those who choose to text while operating their vehicles, but also those who eat, read, talk or otherwise let their attention wander from the roadway in front of them. In fact, curbing cell phone use while driving may only reach the tip of the iceberg as far as solving this growing problem is concerned.

The Insurance Institute on Highway Safety (IIHS), a private group financed by auto insurers, has concluded that cell phone bans, such as those recently brought forth by the USDOT and NTSB, do not work.  Their studies conclude that, in those few states where bans have been instituted, crash rates have not decreased, whether those bans covered cell phone use, texting or both. Institute spokesman Russ Radar was quoted as stating, “Part of it is that distracted driving is much bigger than just phones” since  “focusing on phones doesn’t deal with the full spectrum of things that distract.”

What we need, as IIHS recommends, is not only laws, but strong laws, strong education, and strong enforcement.  These laws need to cover all forms of distracted driving, not just those involving cell phone use. The bus driver traveling with 50 children aboard the bus puts those kids in the same harm’s way whether eating lunch while driving or talking on the phone.  And if an accident results, killing those children, the grieving family is no less affected if the driver missed the red light because he or she was eating than they would be if he or she was talking on the phone.

Applaud the USDOT and the NTSB for their efforts. But do not fool yourself into thinking that those efforts fully solve the problem.