Debra J. Saunders
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"No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life," National Transportation Safety Board Chairwoman Deborah Hersman said in a statement explaining her panel's recommendation in favor of a complete ban on the use of personal electronic devices in cars. She's right on that score. No phone call or text is worth a life. Still, I think the NTSB went too far in recommending a nationwide ban against using personal electronic devices -- including talking on a cellphone -- while driving.

The unanimous recommendation followed an investigation into an Aug. 5, 2010, pileup involving a tractor truck, a pickup and two school buses in Gray Summit, Mo., which left two people -- the 19-year-old pickup driver and a 15-year-old student -- dead. The cause of the accidents, like the cause of other fatal crashes investigated by the NTSB: driver distraction.

Here's what bothers me about this story. It turns out that the 19-year-old pickup driver sent or received 11 text messages in the minutes before he was too slow to hit the brakes when roadwork caused traffic to slow. Thing is, the NTSB found other contributing factors to the pileup. The 19-year-old was sleep-deprived. The driver of the lead bus in the accident was distracted not by a phone, but by a motor coach parked on the shoulder. The second bus was moving too close to the lead bus.

The kicker: Missouri already had a law that prohibited drivers younger than 21 from driving and texting.

Thirty-five states have anti-texting laws. They make sense. You cannot tap out text messages and keep your eye on the road. The two are mutually exclusive activities.

But you can talk and drive.

Since California required drivers to use hands-free cellphone devices in 2008, I've had a friendly back-and-forth with the law's author, state Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto.

I understand why Simitian feels that his legislation has saved lives and spared families heartache. In the years that we've disagreed, after all, I've seen a lot of boneheaded drivers come close to causing ugly accidents because, state law notwithstanding, their brains were glued to a phone.

Lately, I even have seen people driving while playing with an iPad.

"I think it's not fair to call it a nanny-state law," Simitian told me last week, "because there is a distinction between laws that protect us from ourselves -- seat belt and helmet laws -- and laws that protect us from others."

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Debra J. Saunders


 
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