Lawmakers in Missouri had the chance, after two buses packed with high school band members slammed into a freeway wreck caused by a teenager who was sending a flurry of text messages, to impose tougher limits on driver cellphone use. It got filibustered.
Federal transportation officials are citing that accident in pushing for states to enact an all-out ban on cellphone use by drivers, restricting the use even of hands-free devices. But spurring lawmakers to take up the cause may be difficult. Skeptical lawmakers give the proposal little chance at succeeding in state capitols around the country, and many aren’t planning on introducing ban bills.
The reason? While acknowledging growing safety concerns, lawmakers are wary of inconveniencing commuters and say a complete ban would be one of the deepest government intrusions yet into the daily lives of motorists who have woven their phones tightly into their daily routines. Others are worried a ban would be unenforceable. And the cellphone legislation in most states already took years to get approved.
“It’s a popular thing to pass another law,” said Bill Stouffer, a Missouri Republican and chairman of the state’s Senate Transportation Committee. “But anything that takes your eyes off the road is just as deadly as texting or talking on the cellphone. Where does it end? Why not ban map reading or eating while driving?”
The centerpiece of the NTSB’s proposal was an August 2010 wreck southwest of St. Louis in which a pickup truck slammed into the back of a semi cab that had slowed for road construction, and the buses then crashed into the wreckage. The pickup driver, Daniel Schatz, 19, and a bus passenger, Jessica Brinker, 15, died. Thirty-eight people, mostly students, were hurt.
Investigators said Schatz had sent and received 11 texts in 11 minutes just before the accident.
The NTSB’s recommendation far exceeds the patchwork, and largely unenforced, prohibitions many states now have. Thirty-five states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, while nine states and Washington, D.C., bar handheld cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. No state bans the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.
In Idaho – which has historically resisted federal mandates and is one of seven states without any sort of regulation on the use of cellphones by drivers – proposed bans have been rejected the last two legislative sessions after lawmakers questioned their enforceability and the need for new government dictates. South Dakota has a broader law discouraging “distracted driving” but lawmakers have steadily opposed specific bans on electronic devices.
“I was listening to all this heart-wrenching testimony against texting behind the wheel, and I got to thinking about all the calls I’d gone off to where someone was hurt in a car accident,” said South Dakota Republican Rep. Betty Olson, an emergency medical technician from Prairie City. “In just about all of them, they were distracted, so what they were doing was already against the law,” Olson said. “They wouldn’t be paying any more attention to a law banning texting.”
Driver inconvenience is also among the factors state lawmakers cite in their opposition. Others note that cellphones have benefits. In some parts of rural South Dakota, Olson said, a driver’s cellphone can be “a life saver.”
With enforcement of cellphone and texting laws already difficult, Stouffer said police will have an even harder time if hands-free devices are banned.
“How’s an officer going to know if I’m singing my favorite song with the radio or talking on the phone?” he asked.
Even in Missouri, where the bus crash occurred, the lawmaker who tried to broaden the texting ban afterward believes a full-blown cellphone prohibition goes too far.
The state has barred drivers 21 and younger from texting while driving since 2009. Several lawmakers proposed legislation the next year to extend that to all drivers but failed, partly because of concerns over whether it could be enforced. After the bus accident, a similar attempt to broaden the ban was defeated by a filibuster. Democratic Sen. Ryan McKenna said he’ll likely try again for the texting ban, but not for the overall ban.
In California, which bars drivers from talking on handheld phones but permits hands-free devices, state Sen. Joe Simitian doubts states would oblige the NTSB with an absolute ban.
“I think the NTSB recommendations are dramatic and I think they are helpful in highlighting the risks associated with distracted driving,” Simitian said. “As a practical matter, an outright ban is a nonstarter” he said, noting it took five years to pass the state’s existing law, and citing expected opposition to an all-out prohibition.
In recent years, phone features have multiplied and so have the distractions. For commuters, texts, pop-song ringtones, emails and even video calls are but a few of the potential distractions competing for their attention behind the wheel.
As phone features multiply, so have accidents blamed on texting and wireless calling. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said there were 3,092 fatalities blamed on distracted driving last year, 408 of which involved cellphone use. It was the first year the administration broke out cellphones as a separate cause of distraction.
The wireless industry initially fought state legislation against cellphone use while driving, but has in recent years mainly emphasized personal responsibility and driver education over legislation. After the NTSB’s recommendation Tuesday, industry trade group CITA-The Wireless Association repeated its support for bans on texting while driving but added that larger prohibitions should be left to the states.
Even lawmakers who are willing to push for a complete ban concede that passage won’t come easy.
Alaska is considering such a move, said Anne Teigen, senior policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures. That ban has supporters among some police agencies. In Minnesota, which passed a texting ban three years ago, Democratic state Rep. Frank Hornstein said that based on the NTSB recommendation, he will introduce legislation aimed at banning cellphone use by drivers.
Hornstein and Alaska state Rep. Max Gruenberg, a Democrat from Anchorage, noted that battles over road safety laws – such as tougher seat belt requirements or lower blood-alcohol content limits in drunk driving cases – often take years to pass. Hornstein also acknowledged that some residents would oppose a cellphone ban, believing they can police themselves.
“A lot of people will say, `I can do this fine, I’m a good driver. It’s other people,'” Hornstein said.