New York State Police will use stealth tactics later this...

New York State Police will use stealth tactics later this month to identify drivers who use mobile phones while driving. (Dec. 15, 2009) Credit: AP

Three months after the National Transportation Safety Board called for a ban on the use of cell phones by drivers except in emergencies, experts at an agency hearing this week said they doubt society is ready for a complete communications freeze-out and that enforcement would be problematic.

Discussion during the daylong Attentive Driving: Countermeasures for Distraction forum Tuesday at the safety board's headquarters in Washington -- and shown live via the Internet -- concentrated on the rapidly spreading popularity of portable electronic devices and their use by motorists behind the wheel.

"It's time to address how to modify attitudes, change behaviors, and save lives," Deborah A.P. Hersman, chairman of the safety board, said during introductory remarks.

The safety board's December recommendation, she said, "ignited a national dialogue" with some sending letters applauding the agency "for taking such a strong stand" while others protested "intrusive government."

The "myth" of multitasking by drivers is costing too high a price in lives, she said.

"We don't need another decade of investigations and recommendations," Hersman said. "We need to act now. Too much is at stake."

Board members repeated, at various times during the program, that based on studies showing no benefit from hands-free phones compared with hand-held devices, all driver cell-phone use -- including sending text messages -- should be forbidden.

Although nine states currently prohibit hand-held cell-phone calling, and 35 forbid text messaging, none prohibits all cell-phone use by all drivers.

But several of the panelists said legislative efforts to rein in cell-phone calls and text messaging are more likely to succeed if a gradual approach is taken.

"There is a perception that hands-free is safer. (A full ban) would be a very difficult sell to the average voter," said Bruce Starr, a state senator from Oregon, one of the nine states banning hand-held phones.

Board members and panelists also questioned why electronic devices warrant so much attention from authorities when eating, reading, applying makeup and other driving distractions have been problems for years.

David Teater, a National Safety Council executive whose son was killed by a distracted driver in 2004, said the most promising lead may be the growth of corporate policies forbidding employees to use electronic devices while driving if their employer is involved in any way. Surveys of those companies indicate that very few report lost productivity, and a few have found their employees do better work without making behind-the-wheel calls, he said.

Sgt. Jerry Oberdorf, of the Pennsylvania State Police, said enforcement of the text-messaging ban that took effect in Pennsylvania March 8 will be challenging because the mere observation of someone poking at a portable device won't be enough to justify a traffic stop -- that driver could also be making a call.

A total cell-phone ban also would be difficult to enforce, the sergeant said: "If I see someone talking in a car when there are other passengers, how do I know who they're talking to?"

One of the most vexing issues, panelists generally agreed, is a dearth of reliable data about how much electronic-device use really contributes to highway carnage.

While Michigan's standard traffic crash form includes a code for cell-phone use, Ohio's lists only "driver inattention" as a potential crash factor, and police have no way to know whether someone was actually texting or talking on a cell-phone unless they seek a search warrant.

Ohio is one of a handful of states that places no restrictions on drivers' use of hand-held devices -- even novice drivers legally may handle calls and messages.

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