Can you text 'draconian' while driving?

  • Article by: DANA MILBANK , Washington Post
  • Updated: December 18, 2011 - 3:52 PM

Safety officials could lobby for what works, but they went for what satisfies.

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Independent taxi driver Matthew Bahar places his cellphone back in a cradle inside his taxi while waiting to pickup customers at Hobby Airport Wednesday, Dec. 14, 2011, in Houston. The National Transportation Safety Board declared Tuesday that texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is just too dangerous to be allowed anywhere in the United States and is urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.

Photo: David J. Phillip, Associated Press

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Here in the capital, there is a whole new etiquette at stoplights.

Upon arriving at a red light, drivers apply the brakes, pick up their mobile devices, and begin reading and sending e-mails. The signal to resume driving comes not from the green light but from some motorist in the back tapping politely on the horn.

It is not uncommon to drive up to a green light and discover several vehicles still immobile because none of the operators has yet noticed the green light. A horn tap will cause the procession slowly to restart, as drivers, one hand on the wheel and one holding their devices, type a few last words. Or paragraphs.

So you can imagine my surprise Wednesday as I was perusing the Twitter feed on my iPhone while driving downtown. I came across this bulletin: "NTSB calls for a nationwide ban on driver use of personal electronic devices."

I spit my coffee onto my laptop and nearly cut myself with the electric razor I had been using. I lowered the volume on my satellite radio so I could focus on the important task at hand: surfing the Web with my iPhone to learn just what the folks at the NTSB were thinking.

Turns out they weren't, very much. They were proposing to "ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices" -- including hands-free mobile phones -- "for all drivers." It's an absurd overreaction to an unrelated problem.

The accident investigation that spurred the proposal was of a crash in Missouri in 2010 caused by a driver who was texting -- which is definitely a bad thing to do behind the wheel -- instead of talking, which is not nearly as bad.

To conclude that the answer is to ban all cellphone conversations is a government overreach far more invasive than the supposed death panels of the health care law. If embraced, this move will jeopardize Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood's noble effort to crack down on distracted driving.

I've never had a distracted-driving related accident, but this is probably a matter of luck. I've downloaded iTunes while driving, made reservations on OpenTable, and done part of a washingtonpost.com webchat.

Driving in New Hampshire recently, I found myself playing a conference call on speakerphone and recording it with my digital recorder while changing the destination on my GPS.

Clearly, I need to break this addiction, but the ban on texting -- already in effect -- is not having much effect. Often, I'll look up to see if the cop stopped next to me at the light can see my lawbreaking, but invariably he's staring at his own device.

The likelier solution is what's already happening: awareness campaigns to teach about the dangers of texting behind the wheel, and the spread of technologies in cars to make hands-free conversations easier.

The NTSB could encourage both of those solutions, but instead it went in the other direction completely.

Writing in Friday's Washington Post, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman claimed: "Studies published in 2008 in the journal Brain Research as well as in the Journal of Experimental Psychology show that it is more distracting to engage in a cellphone conversation than it is to talk with a passenger."

Incredibly, the NTSB has no data to support this radical proposal -- only laboratory-based studies, and those aren't conclusive.

The Brain Research study speculates that cellphone conversations are more distracting than "listening to a radio, eating and drinking, monitoring children or pets, or even conversing with a passenger," but the authors admit: "It is not known exactly how much each of these distractions affects driving."

The Journal of Experimental Psychology study concludes that, while cellphone conversations can be more dangerous than those with a passenger, a passenger who is "constantly commenting and directing attention in an overcontrolling fashion has a potentially negative impact on performance."

To be evenhanded, the NTSB should also propose a ban on back-seat driving, on children, on radios and cupholders and GPS devices, so we can go back to those safer times when we blocked the windshield with maps.

The absolute ban is the equivalent of defining a drunken driver as any motorist with a blood-alcohol content above 0.00. This would turn us into a nation of lawbreakers and erase the distinction between what is truly dangerous and what is relatively safe.

Disagree? Send me an e-mail. I'm going out for a drive.

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