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Should The U.S. Ban Cell Phone Use By Drivers? Could It?

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Ray LaHood

Ray LaHood

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For U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood, putting an end to distracted driving has become a top-level priority. By now, we've all become used to hearing him talk about it -- particularly, the link between cell phones and distracted driving.

But late last week, LaHood did something new. At a summit on distracted driving in San Antonio, Texas, LaHood called for a federal ban on mobile phone use by drivers

So far, most of LaHood's efforts have centered on awareness campaigns, which have often drawn on the power of A-list stars like Oprah Winfrey. He's also been hard at work with automakers (and aftermarket manufacturers) to set new standards on telematics systems.

But calling for a ban on mobile phone use at the national level? Well, that's a horse of a different color.

LaHood didn't set out specifics for the proposed ban, like whether it might include hands-free as well as hand-held devices. (That's a valid question, since some studies show that the two are equally distracting, though LaHood denies it.)

We're guessing that LaHood's wariness of going into legal details stems from the fact that doing so would put him in some very deep water -- water that's typically patrolled by individual states.

Can it happen?

LaHood and the DOT have done a lot of very commendable work on the topic of distracted driving. His outreach to automakers has been especially forward-thinking. After all, mobile phones sit increasingly at the center of our cars' infotainment and communications hubs. Looking ahead to find new, simpler ways of employing those mobile phones lays the groundwork for a safer tomorrow.

However, a federal ban on mobile phone use would be unusual, if not unique.

Today, individual states typically control laws governing driver behavior. For example, they set their own speed limits, blood alcohol levels, and seat belt regulations. And in fact, most states -- 38, plus the District of Columbia, Guam, and the Virgin Islands -- have laws that restrict cell phone usage by drivers. 

In LaHood's defense, those laws are pretty varied. Some limit the making and taking of calls, some focus solely on texting. Some prevent the driver from using hand-held devices, while in other states, that's a-okay. Some states set age limits on who can use mobile phones while driving and who can't. And in many states, whole professions (e.g. school bus drivers) are prevented from using mobile phones.

Given that crazy quilt, we agree that it would be nice to have a national standard on what is and isn't appropriate, so folks don't have to look up laws on their smartphones when crossing state lines.

But frankly, we don't see that happening. Not anytime soon, anyway.

For now, LaHood & Co. should focus their attention on what they've been doing. For example: if the phone really does become central to vehicle infotainment, limiting the ability of drivers to take calls while their phones are plugged into the center stack would help address (though not solve entirely) many of LaHood's concerns.

From where we sit, that's a safer bet for LaHood and the nation's drivers than trying to impinge on the touchy issue of state's rights.

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Comments (5)
  1. In theory this makes sense. Then the next logical step would be to ban GPS and than radios.
    The next step would be that if a cop saw you without both hands on the wheel he/she would give you a ticket.
    So the $64 question is, 'where does it all end'?
     
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  2. It's just a tool for the back end. If you cause an accident--most of the way--the police would be able to learn whether you'd been texting/talking at the time. It's just a tool, like me.
     
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  3. Politicians and their ilk work on the common denominator theory all dumb. See above article there is absolutely nothing intelligent coming out of his mouth, and definitely noting from the brain.

    For example air bags where forced on car manufacturers and us. They had to meet some stupid government requirements. Well these specs caused smaller people to die. To cover their collective political butts from killing kids they where relegated to the back seat.

    Way back when, you kids would sit up front and the parent could watch them. Pick up the bottle/pacifier. NOW the with child in back it has become the biggest distraction. Ever see a parent leaning into back seat searching floor for toy/pacifier/bottle. So ban babies from cars NOW!
     
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  4. If I were going to play devil's advocate, I'd probably point out that air bags are largely responsible for declining traffic fatality rates in the U.S. In fact, the most recent fatality stats were the lowest on record: http://www.thecarconnection.com/news/1070404_traffic-fatalities-dip-to-lowest-level-since-1949

    LaHood and his buddies are trying continue making progress on the traffic fatality front by minimizing distractions and reducing driver errors while keeping safety standards high. That's great, but I'm not sure they're going about it the right way.
     
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  5. You want to stop this problem? Make the phone manf. build in an auto shut down of phone when ever it goes over 8-10 mph.
     
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