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

April 30, 2012
Ray LaHood

Ray LaHood

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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