The NTSB recommends a ban on phones in cars

It’s been a source of contention between National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and manufacturers. Manufacturers believe that hands-free cell phones in the cars are a lot better than using cell phones in the car. NHTSA has argued against any use of the phone in the car at all.

On December 8, 2011, U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced updated 2010 fatality and injury data showing that highway deaths fell to 32,885 for the year, the lowest level since 1949. The record-breaking decline in traffic fatalities occurred even as American drivers traveled nearly 46 billion more miles during the year, an increase of 1.6 percent over the 2009 level.

NHTSA also unveiled a new measure of fatalities related to distracted driving today, called “distraction-affected crashes.” Introduced for 2010 as part of a broader effort by the agency to refine it’s data collection to get better information about the role of distraction in crashes, the new measure is designed to focus more narrowly on crashes in which a driver was most likely to have been distracted. While NHTSA’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) previously recorded a broad range of potential distractions, such as careless driving and cell phone present in the vehicle, the new measure focuses on distractions that are most likely to affect crash involvement, such as distraction by dialing a cellular phone or texting and distraction by an outside person/event. New data released today by NHTSA using it’s refined methodology show an estimated 3,092 fatalities in distraction-affected crashes in 2010.

The agency’s nationwide observational survey of drivers in traffic remains unchanged between 2009 and 2010, with 5 percent of drivers seen talking on handheld phones.

Now the National Traffic Safety Board (NTSB) has thrown a curve ball and said they advise against all phone use, unless it is an emergency, on a nationwide basis. It’s not clear whether they will recommend allowing hands-free as in Ford’s SYNC, Toyota’s in-tune, Hyundai’s Blue-link,or General Motors built-in phone system On-Star, or not. Right now, General Motors system does not allow texting, Ford’s system allows pre-set texts.

Each state sets up their own regulations for driver behavior, including a seatbelt law, and the consequences, but the NTSB’s recommendations are weighed heavily into each state’s regulations.

Some auto companies, such as Ford, use your smartphone as the main interface. Ford makes deals with certain app groups to allow that information to stream into the vehicle. I asked Alan Mulally, President and CEO, Ford Motor Company, what happens if they mean hands-free as in SYNC?

“We’re really working with them (NHTSA) on removing distractions. We’ve really pioneered voice activation by keeping your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road with SYNC and my Ford touch. Customers have really appreciated it, they believe that it reduces distraction and as we go forward I believe it will be part of the solution.

SYNC is the voice activation system that allows you to go hands-free with your phone. I mentioned to Mulally that 84 percent of the Ford Fusions that have been purchased were purchased with SYNC.

Mulally thinks the reason they buy SYNC is because, “they love the capability, it makes them a better driver, but allows them to keep in touch with their world. The neatest thing about the Ford system is we don’t build complicated systems into the vehicle. We use your smart phone and that’s the main interface which means we a lot of the distraction can’t get into the car, because we can manage that interface. All the data says our ability to adapt is tremendous as long as your eyes are on the road and your hands are on the wheel.”

The NTSB press release from December 13, 2011

No call, no text, no update behind the wheel: NTSB calls for nationwide ban on PEDs while driving
December 13, 2011
Following today’s Board meeting on the 2010 multi-vehicle highway accident in Gray Summit, Missouri, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of portable electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle.

The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges use of the NHTSA model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.

“According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents”, said Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman. “It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving.”

“No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life.”

On August 5, 2010, on a section of Interstate 44 in Gray Summit, Missouri, a pickup truck ran into the back of a truck-tractor that had slowed due to an active construction zone. The pickup truck, in turn, was struck from behind by a school bus. That school bus was then hit by a second school bus that had been following. As a result, two people died and 38 others were injured.

The NTSB’s investigation revealed that the pickup driver sent and received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes preceding the accident. The last text was received moments before the pickup struck the truck-tractor.

The Missouri accident is the most recent distraction accident the NTSB has investigated. Howe’ver, the first investigation involving distraction from a wireless electronic device occurred in 2002, when a novice driver, distracted by a conversation on her cell phone, veered off the roadway in Largo, Maryland, crossed the median, flipped the car over, and killed five people.

Since then, the NTSB has seen the deadliness of distraction across all modes of transportation.

In 2004, an experienced motorcoach driver, distracted on his hands-free cell phone, failed to move to the center lane and struck the underside of an arched stone bridge on the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, Virginia. Eleven of the 27 high school students were injured;
In the 2008 collision of a commuter train with a freight train in Chatsworth, California, the commuter train engineer, who had a history of using his cell phone for personal communications while on duty, ran a red signal while texting. That train collided head on with a freight train – killing 25 and injuring dozens;
In 2009, two airline pilots were out of radio communication with air traffic control for more than an hour because they were distracted by their personal laptops. They overflew their destination by more than 100 miles, only realizing their error when a flight attendant inquired about preparing for arrival.
In Philadelphia in 2010, a barge being towed by a tugboat ran over an amphibious “duck” boat in the Delaware River, killing two Hungarian tourists. The tugboat mate failed to maintain a proper lookout due to repeated use of a cell-phone and laptop computer;
In 2010, near Munfordville, Kentucky, a truck-tractor in combination with a 53-foot-long trailer, left it’s lane, crossed the median and collided with a 15-passenger van. The truck driver failed to maintain control of his vehicle because he was distracted by use of his cell-phone. The accident resulted in 11 fatalities
In the last two decades, there has been exponential growth in the use of cell-phone and portable electronic devices. Globally, there are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers or 77 percent of the world population. In the United States, that percentage is even higher – it exceeds 100 percent.

Further, a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute study of commercial drivers found that a safety-critical event is 163 times more likely if a driver is texting, e-mailing, or accessing the Internet.

“The data is clear; the time to act is now. How many more lives will be lost before we, as a society, change our attitudes about the deadliness of distractions?” Hersman said.

About the Author:

Lou Ann Hammond is the CEO of Carlist and Driving the Nation. She is the co-host of Real Wheels Washington Post carchat every Friday morning and is the Automotive, energy correspondent for The John Batchelor Show and a Contributor to Automotive Electronics magazine headquartered in Korea. Hammond is a member of the North American Car and Truck of the Year (NACTOY), Women's World Car of the Year (WWCOTY), and the Concept Car of the Year.