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NTSB Portable Device Ban Will Put a Roadblock in the Path of Vehicle Connectivity, Safety

by Roger Lanctot | Dec 13, 2011

The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that all 50 U.S. states introduce bans on the use of portable devices in vehicles. The move comes in reaction to a horrific crash in Missouri where 2 passengers died and 38 passengers were injured after a reputedly texting 19-yeare-old driver struck a tractor trailer and was in turn hit by two school buses.

The fact that the crash occurred in Missouri, where a texting and driving ban already exists for drivers under 21, is but one indication of the futility of the NTSB’s initiative.  The NTSB lacks the power to promulgate legislation and only the Department of Transportation is capable of seeking coercive laws, withholding valuable highway funds, for example, from states that fail to fall into line.

The statement of the NTSB is as follows:  “(1) Ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers; (2) use the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration model of high visibility enforcement to support these bans; and (3) implement targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and enforcement, and to warn them of the dangers associated with the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices while driving.”

The NTSB is justifying its decision based on the 3,092 roadway fatalities from 2010 that were attributed to distracted drivers along with the results of a study estimating that 13.5M drivers are on hand-held phones at any given time.  Some interpretations of the statement suggest that embedded telecommunications modules are exempted.

Strategy Analytics’ own consumer surveys conducted around the world show that drivers readily admit to making calls and sending texts while driving. But these surveys are conducted in the context of manufacturers seeking to better understand the scope of the problem and identify safe alternatives to the use of handheld devices – including the implementation of connected smartphone solutions that allow the driver to leave the phone untouched while driving.

The proposed NTSB ban exempts emergency uses of the mobile phone, which is an important exception given the inclination of some regulators to ban phones from cars altogether or to actually disable mobile phones in moving vehicles.  The proposed NTSB ban also exempts the use of portable electronic devices by passengers.

The announcement of the recommended ban is nothing more or less than a scolding of the driving public.  The NTSB lacks the authority to bring about a ban, but the recommendation embodies the thinking already expressed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration under the DOT.  In that sense, the NTSB reflects a regulatory alignment which, though ominous, is meaningless.

Three important facts remain unchanged:

1)      Bans are ineffective.  Missouri already has a ban that is being ignored. 

2)      A simple nationwide “Don’t touch your phone while driving” law – as exists in Germany – will clarify the issue once and for all.

3)      Highway fatalities are at their lowest level in 60 years, according to NHTSA data released two weeks ago, in spite of the meteoric rise of smartphone use.

4)      Smartphones are increasingly becoming an intrinsic element of safe vehicle operation.  From live traffic and hazard alerts to sensors detecting driving conditions to applications controlling or limiting access to distracting phone functions, the smartphone is rapidly becoming a safe driving co-pilot.  And car makers are introducing systems such as Ford Sync and Toyota Entune to leverage smartphone apps and sensors to enhance the driving experience in a safe manner. 

According to some interpretations of the NTSB announcement, hands free systems built into the car by the manufacturer will be exempted from the ban.  It doesn’t much matter anyway, because the NTSB announcement has already achieved its intended objective of putting drivers on notice that regulators are watching their behavior and are capable of intervening if that behavior doesn’t change.

Do smartphones distract drivers?  Yes.  Is one death due to a distracted driver too many?  Yes.  Is a ban on the use of portable electronic devices by drivers the answer?  No.  Is it time for a nationwide law preventing the touching of a mobile phone while driving a sensible alternative that is easier to enforce?  Yes.

One final, fatal and unfortunate note regarding the futility of state-by-state legislative efforts is the fine line Missouri has drawn between those drivers older than 21 being able to text and those younger not being allowed to text when they drive.  This kind of absurd mixed signal is the kind of thing that can be clarified with a nationwide proposition. 

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