TALKING ON a cellphone while driving is a convenient, and accepted, part of modern life, especially when it’s done using a hands-free device. By recommending an outright ban on all cellphone use by drivers, the National Transportation Safety Board has instigated a difficult but sorely needed conversation about how far lawmakers should go to curb distracted driving, which is estimated to have caused more than 3,000 deaths in 2010 alone.
No state currently bans all forms of mobile communication while driving, so the NTSB has staked out an aggressive position. Its recommendations are controversial now, but it could ultimately prove prescient: From seat-belt requirements to smoking bans, it has often taken crusaders, armed with statistics, to shift public attitudes against popular but dangerous social norms.
In the meantime, lawmakers around the country are left to decide whether to follow the board’s recommendation. Complicating that decision are conflicting mounds of evidence: While some studies have shown that all telephone conversations, whether hand-held or hands-free, significantly jeopardize the judgment and reaction time of drivers, others have found that cellphone usage might not be as risky. With that in mind, states should consider tightening their laws, but stopping short of an outright ban unless more conclusive evidence emerges.
Here in the Commonwealth, it is already illegal for any driver to text or browse the Internet, and drivers under the age of 18, as well as city and school bus drivers, are prohibited from using cellphones altogether. Bay State lawmakers should use the NTSB’s recommendation as an opportunity to require hands-free devices. It wouldn’t be a perfect solution, since states that have already enacted similar laws haven’t seen a drop in accidents caused by distracted driving.
But it would be a step in the right direction, and it would buy researchers more time to study whether an unpopular ban really would be the wisest thing to do, despite the grumbling it would cause.