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Ban Urged on Cell Phones for Novice Drivers

Federal safety board sees a growing problem. It is not calling for broader curbs on all such devices in vehicles, because of insufficient data.

June 04, 2003|Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Novice drivers should be barred from using cell phones -- even hands-free units -- while behind the wheel, a federal safety agency recommended Tuesday in its first effort to acknowledge a growing concern.

The National Transportation Safety Board stopped short, however, of endorsing broader restrictions on cell phone use now being considered in California. NTSB Chairman Ellen Engleman said scientific data about the safety consequences of talking on the phone while driving remain unclear.

Tuesday was the first time that the NTSB has dealt with the safety implications of cell phone use on the road. Drivers under age 20 account for about 7% of motorists, but are involved in 14% of fatal accidents, according to government figures.

With 145 million cell phone subscribers in a nation of 191 million licensed drivers, the devices are "potentially a key factor in driver distraction," Engleman said.

But she cautioned: "When we are talking about a safety issue that could involve 145 million people, we would like to have solid data behind any recommendation that goes forward."

At least two academic studies have documented a link between cell phone use and traffic accidents, but obtaining accurate data remains a problem because police in most states do not routinely collect information on the role of phone use in crashes.

California is considering legislation to ban the use of hand-held phones while driving, but would allow hands-free devices. New York already has such a law, and the federal government discourages its employees from using hand-held phones when driving official vehicles.

But Engleman said some studies suggest there is little difference between using hands-free and hand-held phones.

"It is the cognitive aspect of the conversation that is the distraction, not whether you are holding a phone in your hand," Engleman said.

What seems to distract drivers is conversation with a person who is not in the vehicle. By contrast, a conversation partner in the vehicle is usually aware of the road and is less likely to interfere with the driver in a hazardous situation, NTSB investigators said.

On Tuesday, board members heard detailed reports on two crashes in 2002 in which cell phone use was cited as a factor. One was a highway accident near Washington involving an inexperienced driver, and the other a train wreck in Texas.

The NTSB recommended that cell phone use by train crews be sharply restricted. Two freight trains collided head-on after the engineer on one train -- talking on his cell phone -- neglected to follow instructions to halt and let the other train pass.

The highway crash took place last year on the Capital Beltway, the expressway that rings the Washington suburbs. Twenty-year-old Dawn Armstrong was in a Ford Explorer, the first vehicle she had owned, purchased earlier that day.

NTSB investigators said Armstrong was traveling at 70 to 75 mph in the left-hand lane, following a friend in a vehicle ahead and talking with him on her cell phone.

A gust of wind hit the sport-utility vehicle and pushed it to the right. Trying to correct, Armstrong steered too sharply to the left. The Explorer veered off the road, broke through a guardrail and crossed the median.

It hit a guardrail on the other side, became airborne, and landed upsidedown on a Ford Windstar traveling in the opposite direction. All four people in the Windstar were killed, as was Armstrong, who was ejected from her Explorer. Investigators said they found no evidence she had been wearing her seat belt.

While Armstrong had been licensed for several years, investigators said she drove infrequently, in borrowed cars.

NTSB investigators said a more experienced driver might have been able to compensate for the wind gust, even if he or she were talking on the phone.

A computerized stability control system on the SUV and better guardrails could also have prevented the tragic result, investigators concluded. The NTSB recommended that federal safety regulators accelerate their research on stability control systems, and if proved effective, mandate them for all passenger vehicles.

Given the number of factors in the crash, "we could not isolate the role of the cell phone," Engleman said.

Nonetheless, she said she felt confident recommending that states prohibit cell phone use by drivers with learner's permits and by newly licensed drivers. Currently, the only state with such a law is New Jersey.

A study last winter by Harvard University's Center for Risk Analysis estimated that cell phone use contributes to 2,600 highway fatalities a year, or about 6% of the total. The social costs of accidents related to cell phone use are erasing the economic benefits of allowing their unrestricted use by drivers, the study also concluded.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is conducting studies on distractions in traffic accidents. Drivers spend more time behind the wheel, and fiddle with hand-held computers and navigational systems -- not only cell phones.

The NHTSA studies are months away from yielding conclusions. "Cell phone use is clearly a distraction," said Joe Osterman, head of the NTSB's highway safety office. "But its ranking relative to other distractions is unclear."

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