NTSB cell-use ban proposal an overreaction, and a waste of time

posted at 11:00 am on December 16, 2011 by Ed Morrissey

Earlier this week, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) urged all states to ban cell-phone use while driving, including the use of “hands free” cell phone systems, even those that operate through the dashboard of the car itself.  They based this recommendation — unanimously agreed by the NTSB’s board members — on one fatal accident in Missouri a year ago:

The recommendation, unanimously agreed to by the five-member board, applies to both hands-free and hand-held phones and significantly exceeds any existing state laws restricting texting and cellphone use behind the wheel.

The board made the recommendation in connection with a deadly highway pileup in Missouri last year. The board said the initial collision in the accident near Gray Summit, Mo., was caused by the inattention of a 19 year-old-pickup driver who sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes immediately before the crash.

The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, collided into the back of a tractor 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 school buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured in the Aug. 5, 2010, accident near Gray Summit, Mo.

Their conclusion?

It’s not possible to know from cell phone records if the driver was typing, reaching for the phone or reading a text at the time of the crash, but it’s clear he was manually, cognitively and visually distracted, she said.

So even though no one could tell whether the driver was even looking at his phone before the accident, the NTSB is insisting that all cell phone use, including hands-free calling, get banned, even though phone calls had nothing to do with the accident at all.  Why ban phone calls if the NTSB blames texting for the accident?  Well, as it turns out, texting while driving was already illegal in these circumstances:

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.

Er, okay.  In other words, since the law banned the specific act in question didn’t prevent the accident, we should ban even more activities in the hope that will prevent this from happening again?  What’s the logic in play here — that an unenforced ban needs another ban to activate Wonder Twin Powers and actually be effective, even if it doesn’t actually relate to the cause of the crash that prompts the recommendation?

Besides, as Glenn Reynolds writes at Popular Mechanics, there were more factors in play than just the texting:

First, the Missouri crash was largely caused by more mundane safety issues that the NTSB seems to have deliberately downplayed. For all the discussion of the dangers of texting and driving, the NTSB report contains this rather significant finding: “Had the driver of the following school bus maintained the recommended minimum distance from the lead school bus, she would have been able to avoid the accident.”

That’s right: Don’t follow too closely, just like they teach you in driver’s ed. And why did the first school bus rear-end the pickup? According to the NTSB, that was “the result of the bus driver’s inattention to the forward roadway, due to excessive focus on a motorcoach parked on the shoulder of the road.”

So, despite the focus on texting as a cause of this particular accident, and on this accident as purported evidence that drivers should be banned from using portable devices, NTSB’s own report shows that the drivers involved in this scary wreck were involved because of driver inattention having nothing to do with cellphones, texting, or any other personal electronic devices. It was just the old-fashioned kind of driver inattention that has caused most accidents since the beginning of the automobile age, and that could have been prevented by a little attention to proper following distance and the road ahead.

Look at the sequence of the accident again.  Most school buses have the driver riding much higher than other drivers on the road for the purpose of giving them a longer look at the dangers ahead.  The first bus driver, at least, should have been following at a distance where a sudden crash ahead could be avoided, and if the driver ahead of the bus was following the next vehicle too closely, then the bus driver should have slowed down and let more distance separate between the pickup and the bus.  That’s apart from the issue between the two school buses.

The NTSB sounds as if they’re just recommending the bans on activity not connected to this accident as a means of banning all “distractions” in vehicles.  Well, good luck with that.  Responsible driving is all about managing distractions — other cars, road work, bad weather being significantly among them.  While they’re at it, the NTSB might want to take a look at banning some other distractions to driving, too:

  • Screaming children
  • Back-seat drivers
  • Car radios
  • High-beam headlights
  • Pedestrians
  • Subwoofers
  • (Actually, I’ll put subwoofers twice, since I hate those things)
  • Make-up
  • Food
  • Newspapers
  • Necking … and worse

Some of this falls under laws against careless or reckless driving already, of course, which are reasonable rules that actually penalize drivers who don’t properly manage or reduce their distractions.  Calling for bans of hands-free cell phone use (to which several states restrict cell use by drivers already) based on one accident that had nothing to do with making or taking calls on a cell phone are not just unsupportable, they make the situation worse by forcing police to attempt to enforce nearly impossible laws.  How can a cop tell the difference between a hands-free phone call and someone singing along with the radio, or perhaps just talking to himself?

Besides, as one state discovered after passing the ban, they don’t help much anyway.  A study of California’s hand-operated cell phone driving ban showed that it didn’t impact safety records at all:

We present evidence from observed accidents in California over a period in which the state implemented a law to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving a motor vehicle. In contrast to much of the previous research in this area, we treat the implementation of the policy as a quasi-natural experiment and draw on empirical data to determine whether mean daily accidents fell after California implemented the ban. To control for unobserved time-varying effects that could be correlated with the policy, we employ three regression discontinuity strategies: narrowing the time window of analysis, using a highly flexible global polynomial, and using a local linear regression design. The RD approach has advantages over previous empirical work on this topic, namely that we avoid using cross-sectional panel data that are likely susceptible to significant unobserved heterogeneity and omitted factors. We find no evidence of a state-wide decrease in accidents as a result of the ban. While our results are specific to California, cell phone bans in other jurisdictions that have similar enforcement and penalty parameters could be expected to have similar effects.

While this non-result may seem surprising to people accustomed to seeing drivers using cell phones doing careless or dangerous things on the highway, drivers were doing careless and dangerous things on highways long before the invention of the cell phone.

Indeed.  The real danger on the highway is the careless driver, not the distractions that most drivers handle responsibly.

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I had one fly directly into my eyeball! I say kill all bees…what’s the worst that could happen?

DHChron on December 16, 2011 at 12:18 PM

That is too funny.

ditto_95 on December 16, 2011 at 2:59 PM

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.

This law in of itself is absurd! What the hell does it matter if you’re 16, 18, 20, 30, or 40 years of age when texting while driving is extremely dangerous not to mention just plain stupid!

People that text while driving may as well wear blindfolds! I have no problem with hands-free use of phones or systems like Sync that allow drivers to make and take calls using voice activation keeping their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. The most dangerous issue here is texting while driving and that’s what needs to be focused on. I would make texting while driving a 4 point moving violation and a second offense result in the revocation of your drivers license for 6 months, it’s that serious of an issue!

Liberty or Death on December 16, 2011 at 3:02 PM

Aybody texting while driving is an idiot but then as far as I’m concerned using a laptop while driving is an entirely different level of insanity. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve looked down from a bus into a police car in which the police office driving it was busily tapping away on a Panasonic Toughbook.

werehawk on December 16, 2011 at 3:03 PM

If you are safety conscious and decide you have an important message that must be communicated and pull over to the side of the road in order to facilitate sending the message – you will get a ticket for $185.00 for pulling over in a Non-Emergency situation.

Please Explain how this promotes safety?

jaydee_007 on December 16, 2011 at 12:44 PM

Easy,it promotes safety for police jobs in a bad economy. :)

Its like seat belt laws, we’ve gone 1-2 generations of propaganda to wear belts, including warning bells in our cars. Folks 40 and under have heard it all our lives yet just now we have the “click it or ticket” campaign. Funny how thats getting pushed now that states need more cash.

This NTSB report is a snow job (and slander on the kid who died, at least one of those buses had break problems). You can’t prevent idiocy. Train people better and toss in tough laws when people cause accidents due to cell phones or anything else that causes a distraction. Anything else is a bunch of nanny state “there oughta be a law!” whinging. Sort of like arresting people for DUI because they fell asleep drunk in their car, even in the back seat with the keys on the floor or in their pocket.

oryguncon on December 16, 2011 at 3:22 PM

Having your eyes closed while driving is a distraction.

Thus, we must ban sneezing while driving.

We must ban personal driving altogether. Its too dangerous to leave in the hands of people.

Now, everyone on the bus/train. Its for your own good!

hawkeye54 on December 16, 2011 at 3:25 PM

I’m disappointed to see so many ban-happy folks here. Why not prosecute the driver under existing laws, like reckless driving? ANYTHING can be considered a distraction. In North Carolina, drivers under age 18 (I think; it might be 21!) are not allowed to have more than 2 other people in the car, because it magically becomes DISTRACTING to have 3 or more. Can we please stop bitching about the nanny state while embracing it whenever it goes after one of our personal pet peeves?

chriskl99 on December 16, 2011 at 3:38 PM

All these government bans are distracting…

Roy Rogers on December 16, 2011 at 4:25 PM

Texting while driving is not wise.

scotash on December 16, 2011 at 4:35 PM

I would rather deal with drunk drivers than people driving while on the phone. At least the drunks are trying to pay attention!

VerbumSap on December 16, 2011 at 4:44 PM

I live in FL and am from NY who of course has the ban while FL does not. I will not do either while behind the wheel. The few times I did years ago I could not recall Driving from point a to b and it scared the hec out of me. Having said all this, it does not matter one wit what state law is. People will always talk/text drive. I don’t want any more government over reach but I have to say I loathe people who do this and you always know by the way they drive. They swerve, dart in front of you etc and I for one would never take the chance. The call or text will never be that important.


Florida Law on Texting and Cell Phone Use
Currently, Florida has no law prohibiting or restricting drivers from sending text messages or using cell phones while driving. Florida doesn’t require hands-free devices; drivers are free to use any kind of cell phone.

In each of the last several years, the Florida legislature has considered a number of bills that would ban drivers from text messaging, ban drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving, or restrict younger drivers from using wireless communications devices. None of these bills has passed. 

In 2011, the Florida legislature passed a bill that would require driver’s education classes to include instruction on the risks associated with using wireless communications devices while driving, House Bill 689. The bill has been sent to the Governor, but he has not signed it. 

FLconservative on December 16, 2011 at 4:49 PM

Necking … and worse

So glad you had this on the list. In every discussion about distracted driving, everyone forgets roadhead.

cptacek on December 16, 2011 at 4:59 PM

When you sneeze, it is physically impossible to keep your eyes open.

Having your eyes closed while driving is a distraction.

Thus, we must ban sneezing while driving.

Red Cloud on December 16, 2011 at 11:04 AM


cptacek on December 16, 2011 at 5:02 PM

I caught some NTSB woman being interviewed yesterday, and she mentioned that they would also like to ban smoking while driving. Nudge, nudge.

I hate these people like poison.

Naturally Curly on December 16, 2011 at 11:10 AM

My household was chosen last year to do the Census personal interview thing where they interview you once a month for 6 months in a row. In one of the monthly sessions, they gave a survey and asked if I thought it was ok for someone to smoke in a car. I laughed and said “if everyone else in the car is ok with it. There shouldn’t be a law against it.” I knew then that they were going to push for such a law.

cptacek on December 16, 2011 at 5:11 PM

Drives should be able to text and call to their plan’s desire on the driveway. As soon as they go onto a public road, where they inconvenience and are a danger to others, they need to be fined. Heavily!

Mark Ybel on December 16, 2011 at 5:12 PM

Having said that, for every person I caught, there were ten that I didn’t. So, what can we do to stop at least cell phone usage? I say we need a technical solution: develop a gadget for the car that would disable the cell phone or jam it in some way to make it unusable. If you want to use the phone, you have to pull off to the side of the road and turn the car off.

I’m sure there would be challenges in implementing this and “exceptions to the rule” for when this might prevent cell phones from being used when they must be used, but I believe those things can be worked out. I don’t like the alternative: people getting killed because some f**king idiot can’t wait to ask their buddy, “whazzup!”

The only way you are going to stop people from texting while driving is by making it technically impossible for them to do it, not by legislating it.

NavyMustang on December 16, 2011 at 12:05 PM

Awesome! And let’s put drunk driver breath tests on all vehicles too! Yippee!!!

The second something like that goes into place, there are 15 websites telling people how to disable it.

cptacek on December 16, 2011 at 5:13 PM

Dumbass over-reaching government. Typical.

woodNfish on December 16, 2011 at 5:14 PM

I think they should band farding while driving. It can be even more dangerous.

Robert Jensen on December 16, 2011 at 5:38 PM

Nicely written Ed…. I’m spreading this piece.

Keemo on December 16, 2011 at 5:51 PM

Having your eyes closed while driving is a distraction.

Thus, we must ban sneezing while driving.

We must ban personal driving altogether. Its too dangerous to leave in the hands of people.

Now, everyone on the bus/train. Its for your own good!

hawkeye54 on December 16, 2011 at 3:25 PM


There Goes The Neighborhood on December 16, 2011 at 6:57 PM

It’s beyond an overreaction. It’s Nebuchadnezzar, reborn.

The Nerve on December 16, 2011 at 7:41 PM

Sorry for repeating myself but I found more.

I live about ten miles from where that accident occurred. It wasn’t the first fatality in that construction zone. Just two months earlier on May 14th one happened about half a mile from the one that finally made headlines.
The circumstances where nearly identical, a minivan slammed into a Tractor Trailer stopped in the same construction zone. It seems the Tractor Trailer drivers were getting stopped ok because they were being warned about the traffic on their CB, which is a distraction that the NTSB would no doubt love to outlaw!

And a month before that on April 13th another fatal crash happened when traffic backed up and stopped from that very same construction zone.
A Florissant man was killed after being rear-ended on his motorcycle. He was stopped because of traffic congestion, according to the Missouri State Highway Patrol report.

That’s three fatal accidents in less than four months from the same construction zone.
This construction zone was plagued with literally dozens of accidents, many of them were serious accidents. The advance warning for this construction zone was totally inadequate until after the third crash involving the buses, when that spectacular IMAGE went national. Too bad it wasn’t addressed after the first fatality or even the second one.

Pole-Cat on December 16, 2011 at 11:58 PM

If the NTSB is really interested in saving lives, it should start by opposing the CAFE standards that another left wingnut group is promoting. These CAFE standards make cars less safe and more expensive to boot, if anyone can afford to buy them…

drfredc on December 17, 2011 at 12:59 AM

I agree with the NTSB about driving while distracted. The evidence is pretty compelling that most people don’t multi-task effectively, and driving while using a phone or texting contributes to the likelihood of an accident. Having said that, I don’t really want the government getting involved. It seems to me a much better method is to allow the insurance companies to charge appropriately high premiums for people who want to multi-task while driving, and allow the insurers to void policies and coverage for people who are using technology in the car without having paid the higher premiums for it. I would think that would encourage most people to park the car when they want to talk.

Orson Buggeigh

Orson Buggeigh on December 17, 2011 at 1:27 PM

So glad you had this on the list. In every discussion about distracted driving, everyone forgets roadhead.

cptacek on December 16, 2011 at 4:59 PM

But…but…road-head relieves ROAD RAGE!! (sarc)

Liberty or Death on December 18, 2011 at 11:19 AM

Why doesn’t texting fall under the purview of Reckless Driving?

FineasFinn on December 19, 2011 at 10:44 AM

Next it will be you can’t eat and drive. All drive-thru fast food places are to be closed immediately.

Also, anybody who is handicapped can no longer drive: They may cause an accident because of their infirmities – – that is unless, of course, they drive an approved Obamacar Chevy Volt.

And don’t forget those pesky radios. No more radios in cars so people can’t listen to Rush Limbaugh and endanger others on the highway.

Finally – – there will be no talking with passengers while the vehicle is in motion.

Violators will be executed!

kens on December 19, 2011 at 2:00 PM

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