The NTSB's call for safety

When is it safe to drive while talking on a cell phone? Probably never.

It's a miracle that nobody was killed May 28 of last year when a Mack truck hauling debris to a local recycling center pulled into the path of a moving CSX train in Rosedale shortly before 2 p.m. The resulting collision caused 15 cars in the 45-car train to derail, including three carrying hazardous waste. A post-crash explosion could be heard for miles and damaged property a half-mile away.

The final conclusions of an investigation into the incident released this week by the National Transportation Safety Board makes clear who was at fault in the collision — the driver of the truck, John Alban Jr. of Alban Waste, LLC. He had failed to slow and stop at the crossing despite repeated horn blasts from the locomotive. His physical fitness as a driver was also called into question by the NTSB as he had failed to disclose to federal regulators "severe, untreated obstructive sleep apnea" which likely affected his alertness. Alban Waste had a bad safety record, investigators noted, and the sight distance at the crossing could have been better (diminished, in part, by vegetative growth that needed to be trimmed back).

But there was another important factor, too. At the time of the crash, the driver had been engaged in a conversation on his cell phone. Although he was using it in a "hands-free" mode, investigators concluded that the phone had been a distraction. Based on that finding, as well as other crash investigations, the NTSB has recommended that truck drivers not be allowed to use hands-free portable electronic devices while operating a vehicle except in an emergency.

Here's a second to that motion. Distracted driving continues to be too large a problem in this country to be ignored. The presumption that hands-free devices somehow make cell phone use perfectly safe has likely contributed to the problem. And while truckers are hardly alone in this, accidents involving tractor-trailers are far more likely to be deadly than those involving other types of vehicles — that's just the physics of 80,000-pounds of rolling metal versus a two-ton car.

In 2012, more than 3,300 people were killed and 421,000 injured in accidents on U.S. roads where drivers were distracted, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That's a troubling statistic, and it's been cited by any number of safety advocates including the American Trucking Associations which during April's "National Distracted Driving Month" called on all drivers to "put electronics away." "Talking on a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity devoted to driving by 37 percent," an ATA press release points out.

That's why it's a bit discouraging to read that organizations like the Maryland Motor Truck Association defend discretionary use of hands-free cell phones. "There are clear times when a trucking company does need to communicate with its drivers while they are on the road," MMTA President Louis Campion told The Sun's Kevin Rector. Why a truck driver can't simply pull over at the next convenient exit to answer such a call isn't clear.

That's not to give other drivers a free pass on this issue either. The NTSB also recommends that all states and the District of Columbia adopt similar bans on hands-free devices that would apply to all drivers. That's certainly worth exploring as well. Currently, no state bans all cell phones from all drivers, but restrictions on their use have been increasing. Maryland bans all cell phone use by novice drivers and hand-held use from all others. But public sentiment on this issue is evolving as the risks of distracted driving become clearer. As the National Safety Council points out, hands-free is not risk-free. What harm is there in banning all calls by drivers while a vehicle is in motion? Inconvenience? Loss of efficiency? Busier rest stops? Balanced against the thousands of Americans killed by distracted drivers those complaints seem petty.

The NTSB findings from the Rosedale crash deserve to be taken seriously by the appropriate regulatory bodies from NHTSA and the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to the Maryland General Assembly and its counterparts in other states. To borrow an observation from the ATA, it's time Americans used all of their brains and focused more on the road ahead and less on phone calls and other distractions.

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