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NTSB recommends nationwide ban on personal electronic devices while driving; also calls for modifications to the equipment and the completion of a NHTSA rulemaking on collision warning systems

Gray Summit
Photo from the scene of the 2010 Gray Summit accident, the investigation of which prompted NTSB to call for the ban on PEDs. Wedged between the chassis of the bus and the bobtail is the remains of a GMC pickup, the driver of which apparently had been texting. Source: NTSB presentation. Click to enlarge.

Following a Board meeting on a 2010 multi-vehicle highway accident in Gray Summit, Missouri, the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) called for the first-ever nationwide ban on driver use of personal electronic devices (PEDs) while operating a motor vehicle.

The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to (1) ban the non-emergency 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 (NHTSA) 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.

NTSB also recommended that CTIA (The Wireless Association and the Consumer Electronics Association) encourage the development of technology features that disable the functions of portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion; these technology features should include the ability to permit emergency use of the device while the vehicle is in motion and have the capability of identifying occupant seating position so as not to interfere with use of the device by passengers.

According to NHTSA, more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents. 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.

—Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman

NTSB also recommended that NHTSA complete rulemaking on adaptive cruise control and collision warning system performance standards for new passenger cars. At a minimum, these standards should address obstacle detection distance, timing of alerts, and human factors guidelines, such as the mode and type of warning.

Further, NTSB said, NHTSA should determine whether equipping commercial vehicles with collision warning systems with active braking and electronic stability control systems will reduce commercial vehicle accidents. If these technologies are determined to be effective in reducing accidents, require their use on commercial vehicles.

Background.

On 5 August 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 of this accident sequence, the driver of the pickup and one passenger seated in the rear of the lead school bus were killed. A total of 35 passengers from both buses, the 2 bus drivers, and the driver of the Volvo tractor received injuries ranging from minor to serious. Eighteen people were uninjured.

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 following were not factors in this accident: (1) weather; (2) driver qualifications or familiarity with the accident location; (3) alcohol or illicit drug use by any of the four drivers; (4) mechanical condition of the Volvo tractor, the GMC pickup, or either of the two school buses; (5) emergency response; or (6) highway design, work-zone signage, or work-zone policies.

The absence of a timely brake application, the cellular provider records indicating frequent texting while driving, the temporal proximity of the last incoming text message to the collision, and the witness statement regarding the driver’s actions indicate 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.

—NTSB synopsis

The Missouri accident is the most recent distraction accident the NTSB has investigated. However, 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.

Other incidents logged by the NTSB include:

  • 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 its 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 personal electronic devices. Globally, there are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers or 77% of the world population. In the United States, that percentage is even higher&madsh;it exceeds 100%.

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.

A synopsis of the NTSB report, including the probable cause, findings, and a complete list of the safety recommendations is online. The NTSB’s full report will be available on the website in several weeks. The synopsis does not include the Board’s rationale for the conclusions, probable cause, and safety recommendations. Safety Board staff is currently making final revisions to the report.

Comments

Zhukova

The cell phone makers have known for a long time about the dangers of texting, or talking on their products while driving, yet they have been practically silent. Shame on them. Now the government is telling them to make phones that are automatically disabled for the driver. They should have done this on their own a long time ago. We will see if republicans will cry about excessive regulation.
15 years ago, I personally saw a driver in the next lane talking on her cell phone and looking straight ahead at a dozen cars stopped about 100 feet ahead at a light, with all the brake lights on at dusk. She didn't put on the brakes until about 20 feet before impact, just slammed into the back of a car at 30 mph and put somebody in the hospital.
The act of talking on the cell phone is different than talking with a passenger. Holding something in your hand while driving doesn't add much risk. Concentrating on the person talking on the phone is what is dangerous. That's why hands free phones are no safer and maybe more dangerous because people think they are safer and concentrate more on the conversation.

HarveyD

More distraction for the drivers will increase accidents. How about those new screens with hard to read data? Will that be as bad as texting?

Zhukova

Of course watching a screen loaded with details is distracting. The auto companies know this, but they have no obligation to society to make anything safe. Their only obligation is to make a profit for the stock holders and wait for people to die from car wrecks - "Let them burn" is what one Ford executive said after lots of people died from exploding Pinto fuel tanks. Only after lots of people die will the government be able to overcome big business's influence and regulate the companies to make cars safe from cell phone idiots.

I believe that the auto companies need to team with the cell phone makers to enable the phone to communicate with the car. That would be the easiest way to be sure the phone doesn't work for the driver.

Zhukova

Ron paul has already spoken out agaist the government's role in public safety concerning cell phone use in vehicles. This makes him a "let em burn" republican.

Roger Pham

Dashboard-mounted camera that can detect red lights and rapidly approaching obstacle can help prevent collisions due to inattentive drivers.

Ban cell phone use while driving is OK if exception is made to those whose cars have collision avoidance devices. That would be the only way to make it politically palatable.

sheckyvegas

Works for me. Now if we can only do something about the stupid broads playing with their makeup and the fat assholes chowing into their McDonalds'.

Aaron Turpen

Studies have shown that 1) bans do not appreciably lower the use of gadgets while driving and 2) have little to no effect on the number of deaths from auto accidents.

So why add yet another stupid law that just gives cops another reason to pull us over and issue a tax (er.. ticket)?

HarveyD

The final solution may be to put human drivers in the back seat and let the on board computer do the (accident free) driving?

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