The NTSB’s Recommendation on Electronics Ban is Unrealistic

Last week the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended a total ban on in-car electronic devices in order to reduce driver distractions. NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said at a hearing in Washington, “It’s time to put a stop to distraction. No call, no text, no update is worth a human life.” The recommendation, while well-intentioned, seems like an overreaction on many levels. But I find myself torn on the issue.

On the one hand, I’m a car guy, and therefore I believe that the only thing that should matter when the steering wheel is in front of you is driving safely. I agree that texting – or simply reading texts, emails or other media, for that matter – while operating a vehicle is about as safe as driving with a bucket over your head. I’ve witnessed accidents that were the direct result of a driver glancing down for too long at the wrong time. I’ve also been affected by it in the second degree, as my daughter’s Taekwondo instructor was rear-ended by a teen driver who was texting at the time; his abilities to earn a living in such a physically demanding profession were, for a while initially, in doubt. So I’m all for an official policy banning texting behind the wheel.

On the issue of cell phone use, I’m a bit less supportive. I’ve been using a cell phone in my car for about twenty years now, and other than the act of finding a contact to call, I personally find chatting while driving to be very unintrusive, practically second nature, particularly when I’m using an integrated hands-free setup.

My everyday car right now is a 2012 BMW X3 with full integration for my iPhone. When paired via Bluetooth, answering an incoming call is as simple as hitting the big iDrive knob on the center console and then conversing as normal. Even when “engaged” on a phone call, I’m still very much the active driver I pride myself on being, scanning down the road, checking rearview mirrors, glancing at my instruments and so on.

Even when I dial out using the built-in, finding a contact is rarely any more difficult than finding a new radio station. My phone book contains all the names and numbers of practically anyone I would ever talk to by phone, so it’s a simple matter of scrolling through the list using the very same screen that displays the radio station and navigation, two items the NTSB is OK with drivers using.

OEM and aftermarket manufacturers alike have invested millions of dollars developing technology that makes mobile communication less detracting. Scrapping all of that now in the name of public safety would be a waste. And since the NTSB has no authority to enforce its will upon us, it will be up to the individual states to create their own restrictions, penalties and enforcement methods should they follow the Board’s recommendations.

The issue that’s likely pushing the recent hysteria is the rampant upswing in the number of people who feel the need to read and send email and text messages while driving. Consider this: Any carmaker would be sued to bankruptcy if it decided to eliminate conventional instruments in favor of a multi-function, hand-held device the size of a business card, yet many drivers willingly submit themselves to such an experience in the interest of “staying connected.” It’s dangerous to divert our attention to such a small screen for an average of five seconds at a time, but until there’s a wake-up call, most of us will continue to risk it.

The best form of wake-up call should be a universal policy by all states making it at least a misdemeanor traffic violation to read or type on a hand-held communication device while driving, with additional penalties if the act results in a collision that damages property or injures someone. The threat of automatic license suspension, as with driving under the influence of alcohol, might make some think twice before picking up their phone. Minor drivers in particular – perhaps the most active textures and least capable drivers – should face automatic suspension on first offense.

Personally, I lock my phone in the center console while I’m driving. I’ll use the phone, but you’ll never see me reading emails or texts, not even at a stoplight. If more people would accept driving for what it is -a serious responsibility – the heavy hand of the law would not be needed. Unfortunately, it will probably be the latter that makes the change.