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Driving to Distraction on Information Superhighway

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
"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."

It is not clear, however, that the hands-free law actually protects Californians from other drivers. In 2010, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety released a study that found hands-free laws did not reduce the number of car crashes in California, New York, the District of Columbia or Connecticut. The good news: Crashes were down everywhere.

Other studies show no real distinction in terms of distraction between drivers using hands-free devices and drivers using hand-held phones. In fact, that's the NTSB's argument for a complete ban. Distraction is distraction.

"They can't find the difference," Simitian countered. "The fact that they can't find it doesn't mean it isn't there."

Simitian and I agree that the NTSB folks are right to point out that a moment's distraction can spell the difference between a crash and a miss. In that sense, the NTSB recommendation is positive.

Over time, I've found that I am more careful and less likely to use my cellphone when I drive. There are too many bad drivers on the road.

And I understand that driving is not a right, but a privilege.

But I believe that most drivers exercise caution when they are on the phone and behind the wheel. I try to overcompensate for any distraction.

Besides, the state cannot outlaw all distractions. Witness the school bus driver -- a professional -- who hit the pickup.

Simitian also introduced legislation that banned texting while driving -- which I applaud. But he does not support a ban that would include hands-free phones. He called the NTSB proposal "a non-starter."

Twice I've interviewed Simitian on his hands-free law while he drove between Palo Alto and Sacramento. He always uses a hands-free device. He told me, "It's all hands on the wheel, all eyes on the road."

I opposed the hands-free law, but I obey it. In fact, technology has evolved so that complying is not much of an inconvenience. Still, I habitually see people driving while holding a phone to their heads. They don't care about the hands-free law. And chances are that I've noticed them because they are lousy drivers.

So when I read that the NTSB wants more laws that bad drivers will ignore, I don't see the point. I see another instance of the government's imposing a law on people who are careful, when smarter laws don't stop reckless drivers from texting or trolling the Internet.

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