A major insurance company and a major insurance industry group are backing a recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board for a state-by-state ban on using cellphones while driving except in emergencies. Across the country, law enforcers' and lawmakers' opinions of the proposal are split.
Meanwhile, a congresswoman is renewing her call for passage of federal legislation that would impose a cellphone ban across the country.
The safety board, which investigates transportation accidents, on Dec. 13, 2011, urged all 50 states and the District of Columbia to enact laws prohibiting cellphone use behind the wheel.
Such laws would not directly affect auto insurance rates. However, some experts say, state cellphone bans could lead to fewer car crashes, which could drive down insurance rates.
"There's considerable research showing that state laws restricting driver cellphone use are difficult and expensive to effectively enforce," says Matt Howard, CEO of ZoomSafer, which produces software that helps prevent distracted driving.
Studies released in 2010 by the nonprofit Highway Loss Data Institute found no reductions in crashes after state bans on using hand-held cellphones and on texting while driving took effect.
The cellphone ban debate
Todd Nehls, sheriff of Dodge County, Wis., says he doesn't support the proposed ban.
"Rather than prohibit using cellphones, we should continue to educate the public about the dangers of using cellphones while driving," Nehls told Milwaukee TV station KTMJ.
On the other hand, Tennessee Highway Patrol Sgt. Randall Martin told Knoxville TV station WBIR that a complete ban would eliminate the need to guess whether a driver is talking or texting behind the wheel.
"Anything that's going to take a distraction out of a driver's hand or field of view is a bonus," Martin says.
On the legislative front, Florida state Sen. Jack Latvala told WTSP in Tampa, Fla., that he wouldn’t support a cellphone ban in the Sunshine State. “You can take it out of my cold, dead fingers,” Latvala says of his cellphone.
Florida state Sen. Nancy Detert says a statewide cellphone ban makes sense. “It’s not limiting anyone’s personal freedom,” she told WTSP. “It’s a safety issue.”
Where the bans are
According to the Governors Highway Safety Association, nine states and the District of Columbia prohibit all drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving. Thirty states and D.C. ban all cellphone use by novice drivers. Thirty-five states and D.C. ban text messaging for all drivers, and another seven states prohibit text messaging by novice drivers.
Saying he didn't want to “micromanage the behavior of adults,” Texas Gov. Rick Perry in June 2011 vetoed legislation that would have banned texting while driving statewide. Texas law already prohibits drivers under age 18 from using a cellphone while driving.
'A major epidemic'
In announcing the American Insurance Association's support of the proposed ban, President and CEO Leigh Ann Pusey calls distracted driving "a major epidemic" across the country.
"While we have made great strides in highway safety, more must be done. This crisis is the newest challenge to the safety of everyone sharing our roads and highways," Pusey says.
In a statement, Nationwide -- one of the country's largest auto insurers -- says it views the proposed ban in all 50 states and the District of Columbia "as another important step in curbing the dangers of distracted driving."
"Increasingly busy lives and new technologies compound the problem of distracted driving, which underscores the need to focus on driving while behind the wheel," Nationwide says.
Nationwide says it supports a combination of solutions -- such as public awareness campaigns, legislation, roadway improvements and new technology -- in the effort to combat distracted driving.
Legislator presses for federal law
U.S. Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, a New York Democrat who is the author of the Safe Drivers Act of 2011, says a single nationwide standard for cellphone use by drivers should be established at the federal level.
“We can’t wait for multiple states to act, and we can’t afford to have a patchwork of laws where some Americans are more protected than others,” McCarthy says in a news release. “The simplest, safest solution would be a single national standard, like we have for blood-alcohol content. Texting while driving can be as dangerous as drunk driving, and getting more and more common every day. All Americans deserve to be safe, no matter where they’re traveling.”
Distracted driving has been blamed for more than 3,000 U.S. traffic deaths in 2010.
Study questions risks
In a new study, Richard Young, professor of research at Wayne State University, says two previous studies on talking on a cellphone while driving may have overestimated the risks. The influential studies were conducted in 1997 and 2005.
“Tasks that take a driver’s eyes off the road or hands off the steering wheel are what increase crash risk,” Young says in a news release. “Texting, emailing, manual dialing and so forth — not conversation — are what increase the risk of crashes while driving.”