National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) members released “watershed” recommendations to all 50 states and the District of Columbia to outlaw all forms of wireless communication when driving.
The recommendations to ban all hand-held, hands-free phone (as well as Bluetooth) conversations as well as texting, emailing and updating social network sites via “personal electronic devices” followed the investigation into an August 2010 multi-vehicle highway accident that resulted in two fatalities and 38 injuries. The crash in Gray Summit, Mo., involved two school buses, a tractor trailer and a pickup truck.
NTSB investigators found that the crash was initially caused by the pickup driver sending and receiving up to 11 texts in the 11 minutes leading up to rear-ending the tractor trailer in a construction zone. Another contributing cause to the crash was the two school buses following too closely.
NTSB Chairman Debrorah Hersman called the recommendation a “watershed” development in the agency’s decade-long effort to increase safety in transportation modes nationwide because it seeks to change driver behavior, similar to the way previous recommendations have affected drunk driving and seat belt usage. She cited a AAA study released last week indicating that 99 percent of drivers in the D.C. metro area said that texting or talking on the phone while driving is dangerous — but more than half of these drivers admitted to recently holding phone conversations themselves while behind the wheel and 20 percent admitted to texting.
Hersman added that recent statistics released by the U.S. Department of Transportation on nationwide traffic crashes shows more than 3,000 fatalities caused by distraction-related incidents.
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.
Meanwhile, a September 2010 Governor Highway Safety Association report backed an earlier study by the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety that found that banning hand-held cell phone usage while driving doesn’t reduce crashes. Actually, crashes increased in three of four states that had laws in place.
Prior to the press conference, NTSB board members considered the safety recommendations. The recommendations are only that and the NTSB holds no authority over states, agencies within the U.S. Department of Transportation or other national or local organizations.
Later before a room full of national reporters with many others listening in via telephone conference, Hersman said strong laws or regulations are necessary at the state level to address wireless communication while driving, but just as important — if not more so — are strong public-awareness campaigns and strict law enforcement. She added that while the recommendations might not be popular, the NTSB is “not here to win a popularity contest.”
“We’re here to do the right thing,” said Hersman.
The recomended ban still allows for emergency 911 calls to be made by motorists while driving. When asked if NTSB could define what constitutes an emergency, Hersman responded that such incidents should pass a “common-sense test.”
NTSB recommended that GPS or two-way radios used by drivers should be exempt in any state laws because the equipment is deemed to “support the driving task.” Hersman declined to add more specifics as to what other products or technologies would fall in this category.
NTSB urged the cell phone industry to do more to identify current and future technology that can prohibit the usage of personal electronic devices by drivers, such as software that can be downloaded to a cell phone that automatically sends incoming calls to voice mail while the recipient is operating a vehicle. Hersman did add that the NTSB plans to make further recommendations in 2012 on technology-specific items, including phone jammers in vehicles, and pointed out that today’s recommendations only fell on the states.
“Techology absolutely has potential to solve these problems. These are applications that are overdue,” she added. “The reason people have cell phones, iPads, etc. is for convenience and communication. That is not the priority when you’re driving a car. You need to be focused at the task at hand.”
The multi-vehicle school bus crash took place Aug. 5, 2010, in Gray Summit, Mo., as two school buses were transporting members of a local high school band to the Six Flags St. Louis amusement park. A tractor trailer and a pickup truck were also involved in the accident.
The accident was under investigation by the NTSB and the Missouri Highway Patrol for several months. However, an initial report indicated that inattentiveness on the part of the driver of the first bus caused it to collide initially, while a short following distance between the first and second bus caused the final rear-end collision. The NTSB also was reportedly looking into whether seat belts should have been used in the school buses.
In the Gray Summit, Mo., crash, the pickup truck first struck the back of a stopped truck-tractor, which caused a chain-reaction crash involving the school buses that were following from the rear. The first bus struck the back of the truck and was then hit by the second school bus. As a result, a 15-year-old girl student riding in one of the school buses and a 19-year-old man who was driving the pick-up truck were killed.
In November 2010, Dwight Foster, the deputy director of NTSB’s Office of Highway Safety reviewed the multi-vehicle highway accident for members of the National Association of State Directors of Pupil Transportation Services during the group’s annual meeting in Portland, Ore. At that time, he said it was “inexplicable” why the driver of the first school bus failed to react to the slowing traffic on Missouri’s Instate 44.
Fifty children were on the two school buses, one as young as a 6-year-old, apparently a family member of an adult chaperone. Twenty-four of the students suffered injuries — most were minor. A 16-year-old girl and a 14-year-old boy were hospitalized with serious injuries.
STN Associate Editor Sylvia Arroyo contributed to this report.