December 14, 2011 3:06PM

Feds Want To Ban Phone Use — Even Hands‐​Free — While Driving

For quite a while Obama transportation officials have been campaigning against the safety hazard of “distracted driving,” but they must regard the American public as slow learners, because now the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is proposing something truly radical: a ban on drivers’ use of cellphones and other personal electronic devices even when they’re hands‐​free and thus don’t require taking anyone’s eyes or hands off the road or steering wheel. The only exceptions the agency would permit would be “emergency” phone use and “devices designed to assist the driving task,” such as GPS devices. NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman said the problem is “cognitive” distractions as well as the “visual” and “manual” kind. The agency cannot adopt such a ban directly, but it’s calling on the states to fall into line and to enlist in a campaign of “high‐​visibility enforcement.”

And there’s more. NTSB is also, to quote PC World, “encouraging electronics manufacturers — via recommendations to the CTIA‐​The Wireless Association and the Consumer Electronics Association — to develop features that ‘disable the functions of portable electronic devices within reach of the driver when a vehicle is in motion.’ ” In the perfect Nannyland of the future, your phone will turn itself off when the government wants it to — even if you were in the middle of placing one of those emergency calls (“Honey, get out of the house, the flood waters are rising”) that will supposedly still be permitted.

Tech commentators are blasting the agency for jumping the gun on the evidence, to say nothing of ignoring values of personal liberty. A PC Magazine writer points out that while there is a safety case to be made against texting behind the wheel — a practice that encourages the driver to look away from the road for extended periods — the NTSB is short of statistics (as opposed to scary anecdotes) to show that phone conversation itself is a dire problem. Ars Technica notes that even the board’s own (disputable) statistics link the hazards of “conversation with passengers” to more than twice as many fatal accidents as the hazards of device use — and no one has yet proposed banning passenger conversations with the driver. (Don’t give Washington ideas, though.) Among devices, the sort of touch‐​screen car entertainment systems that you can fiddle with for ten seconds at a stretch — which are apparently okay with NTSB — would seem to pose considerably more distraction than one‐​button phone‐​answering. And speaking of statistics, the Federal Highway Administration website reports the lowest per‐​mile auto fatality rate ever, and the lowest in absolute numbers since the year 1950 — even though, to quote the NTSB itself, device use has seen “exponential growth” in the past few years.

Something doesn’t add up here. Commercial drivers, since the early‐​1980s CB radio craze and long before, have been using mobile communications for purposes other than emergencies and driving assistance, and their safety record is not notably atrocious. Hang up on this bad idea now, please.