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NTSB recommends ban on driver cell phone use

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WASHINGTON (AP) - States should ban all driver use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices, except in emergencies, the National Transportation Board said Tuesday.

The recommendation, unanimously agreed to by the five-member board, applies to both hands-free and hand-held phones and significantly exceeds any existing state laws restricting texting and cellphone use behind the wheel.

Captain Thomas Didone, who runs the Montgomery County Police Dept. Traffic Division, fully supports the NTSB call to ban cellphones by drivers.

Didone speaks from professional and personal experience. In 2008, his 15-year-old son, Ryan, died in a car accident in which the driver was distracted.

"Those that are distracted at 26 times more likely to get involved in a crash," Didone said.

D.C. and Maryland ban texting and use of handheld phones while driving. In Virginia, only texting is prohibited.

The recommendation by the board went even further, banning use of personal electronic devices like tablet computers, PDAs, iPods and anything that could take a driver's attention away.

The recommendation comes in connection with a deadly highway pileup in Missouri last year. The board said the initial collision in the accident near Gray Summit, Mo., was caused by the inattention of a 19 year-old-pickup driver who sent or received 11 texts in the 11 minutes immediately before the crash.

The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, collided into the back of a tractor truck that had slowed for highway construction. The pickup was rear-ended by a school bus that overrode the smaller vehicle. A second school bus rammed into the back of the first bus.

The pickup driver and a 15-year-old student on one of the school buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured in the Aug. 5, 2010, accident near Gray Summit, Mo.

About 50 students, mostly members of a high school band from St. James, Mo., were on the buses heading to the Six Flags St. Louis amusement park.

The accident is a "big red flag for all drivers," NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said at a meeting to determine the cause of the accident and make safety recommendations.

It's not possible to know from cell phone records if the driver was typing, reaching for the phone or reading a text at the time of the crash, but it's clear he was manually, cognitively and visually distracted, she said.

"Driving was not his only priority," Hersman said. "No call, no text, no update is worth a human life."

The board is expected to recommend new restrictions on driver use of electronic devices behind the wheel. While the NTSB doesn't have the power to impose restrictions, it's recommendations carry significant weight with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers.

Missouri had a law banning drivers under 21 years old from texting while driving at the time of the crash, but wasn't aggressively enforcing the ban, board member Robert Sumwalt said.

"Without the enforcement, the laws don't mean a whole lot," he said.
Investigators are seeing texting, cell phone calls and other distracting behavior by operators in accidents across all modes of transportation with increasing frequency. It has become routine for investigators to immediately request the preservation of cell phone and texting records when they launch an investigation.

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