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NewsOpinionEditorial

The NTSB's call for action

Justice SystemNational Transportation Safety BoardHighway and Road TransportationTransportation IndustryJones Falls Expressway

Perhaps it was merely the wind, or the thump of tire against pot hole, but it sure sounded like an audible cheer rose up from the Jones Falls Expressway on Tuesday, when news came out that the National Transportation Safety Board is calling on states to ban drivers from using cellphones while driving — including the use of hands-free devices.

That last provision may have been the only real surprise in the announcement, given concerns raised by cellphone use in the past, but studies have also raised questions about Bluetooth devices and similar technology before. They may free the driver from having a phone mashed against his or her ear, but the essential problem — driver distraction — remains.

Driving while using one's cellphone, whether for talking, texting or engaging in any of the hundreds of other uses provided in the increasing complex world of "apps," has become of growing concern to highway safety advocates — and a matter brought annually before state legislatures.

The NTSB recommendation is unlikely to cause states to immediately ban driver cell phone use, nor should they necessarily. Currently, no state has taken that hard a line, and only nine prohibit talking on a handheld cellphone while driving. A majority prohibit texting while driving. And many have restrictions on cellphone use for certain drivers — those with restricted (novice) licenses and school bus operators chief among them.

Maryland is already among the most restrictive of states in this arena. It's against the law to talk on a phone while driving, and this year the General Assembly expanded its ban on texting to include reading them and not just writing them.

The next logical step for Annapolis is not to ban cellphone use by drivers entirely but to make the existing prohibitions a primary offense rather than a secondary one. Currently, police can ticket someone for breaking the state's cellphone restrictions only if the driver has been pulled over for some other violation.

The arguments against primary enforcement — just like those against restricting cellphone use by drivers in general — are familiar but unconvincing. Most drivers, they will argue, can talk and drive responsibly just fine. And if the state must ban distractions, what about eating, smoking, changing radio stations, applying makeup, lecturing the kids or the dozens of other behaviors drivers might engage in that the law could never even anticipate?

All reasonable points, but they don't negate the growing evidence that cellphone use while driving is increasingly a contributing factor in accidents. The consequences of that behavior, while less severe than drinking and driving, are alarming: More than 3,000 people lose their lives each year in distraction-related crashes.

On the other hand, those who believe that states should ban cellphone use immediately and entirely should understand that safety improvements must be made by consensus and not fiat. Such a change in behavior takes time.

Consider, for instance, the seat belt, the single most effective safety device available for cars. The first factory-installed models were made available in 1950, but they weren't made mandatory until 1968. Drivers and passengers weren't required by law to use them for another 20 years. And it's only fairly recently that failing to wear a seat belt has been elevated to a primary offense in a majority of states (about one-third of states still keep it as a secondary offense). There have been similar gradual progressions in air bags, teen driver restrictions and drunken-driving laws.

The NTSB ruling ought to be seen as a long-term target or safety ideal: This is where states will need to be by the end of the decade and perhaps sooner. But before that can happen, local lawmakers must take the intermediate steps to both update their laws and better educate drivers on the dangers of driving while distracted.

At some level, this should be common sense for most of us: How often have you been stuck behind an erratic driver, only to see a phone in his or her hand? Still, if common sense could be relied upon to regulate human behavior, there'd be no need for speed limits and traffic cops. In the real world, it takes the hand of government (and a bit of patience) to make the roads safer.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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