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Reporting on Missouri accident, Safety Board calls for texting, cellphone ban

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 15, 2011 - WASHINGTON - Based on its investigation of a fatal 2010 traffic pileup on Interstate 44 near Gray Summit, Mo., the National Transportation Safety Board voted unanimously Tuesday to call on all 50 states to ban texting and cell phone use while driving.

"No call, no text, no update is worth a human life," said NTSB Chair Deborah A.P. Hersman, in a statement after the meeting. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving."

The Safety Board's recommendations resulted from its inquiry into the fatal series of collisions on Aug. 5, 2010, on I-44 in Gray Summit. Investigators concluded that a pickup driver, who had been texting, plowed into a tractor trailer and set off a series of collisions involving two school buses that killed two people and injured 38 others.

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, the report said.

The five-member board called for every state and the District of Columbia to ban the non-emergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. It also urged the use of "high-visibility enforcement" to support these bans across the nation.

In the last two decades, studies have found tremendous growth in the use of cell-phone and personal electronic devices. There are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers worldwide (77 percent of the world population), and there are more cellphones than people in this country.

A study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute 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 are clear; the time to act is now," Hersman said. "How many more lives will be lost before we, as a society, change our attitudes about the deadliness of distractions?"

CNN reports that state laws on cellphone use and texting vary widely. About 35 states ban text messaging while driving, 30 states ban cell-phone use by novice drivers, and 10 ban all use of hand-held cell phones. The Safety Board reported that many of the laws are not aggressively enforced. For example, the Missouri State Highway Patrol had issued only 120 citations for texting in a two-year-period.

In Missouri, drivers under the age of 21 are prohibited from text messaging. Illinois bans text messaging by all drivers and also bans the use of handheld cell phones while driving in a school zone or in a highway construction zone.

The Gray Summit accident is only the most recent such incident the NTSB has investigated. The first investigation involving distraction from a wireless electronic device occurred in 2002, when a young 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.

A summary of the NTSB's report on the Gray Summit accident said the Safety Board's investigation concluded that:

  • The pickup driver "was most likely distracted from the driving task by a text messaging conversation at or near the time of the accident." That conclusion was based on cellphone records "indicating frequent texting while driving," the fact that the last incoming text message happened at about the time of the collision, the driver did not apply the brakes in a timely manner, and witness statements.
  • "A combination of enforceable state laws, high visibility enforcement, and supporting communication campaigns can reduce the number of accidents caused by drivers distracted by the use of portable electronic devices."

An NTSB fact sheet outlines some of the statistics and reasoning behind the recommended texting ban, which include:

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.

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