Today the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a nationwide ban on the use of cell phones and texting devices while driving. The NTSB says it is a safety issue, because drivers who are talking or texting aren’t paying attention.
The NTSB argues that distracted drivers caused more than 3,000 roadway fatalities last year. In fact, it believes the actual number probably is higher, because distracted drivers don’t own up to the real cause of accidents. Proponents of a ban point to evidence that a horrific chain-reaction accident in Missouri that killed two people and injured more than 30 others was caused by a texting driver and argue that making such conduct illegal might avoid such accidents in the future. (It’s interesting that the NTSB proposal apparently would be not to ban “hands-free” devices that the manufacturer builds into the car. What is the rationale for distinguishing between an automaker’s built-in hands-free device and one purchased separately?)
I think distracted drivers are a problem, but I’m not sure that a one-size-fits-all ban of cell phone use by drivers is a meaningful solution. Texting and talking on a cell phone can be distracting for some drivers — but so can inserting a CD into a CD player, fumbling to light a cigarette, putting on makeup, or fishing for french fries in the bag you picked up from the McDonald’s carryout window. Indeed, some people can be distracted without even doing anything with their hands, because they are preoccupied, or angry, or fighting drowsiness. Are we really going to try to ban every form of activity that might make bad drivers worse?