WASHINGTON (AP) - Texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed, federal safety investigators declared Tuesday, urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.
Inspired by recent deadly crashes - including one in which a teenager sent or received 11 text messages in 11 minutes before an accident - the recommendation would apply even to hands-free devices, a much stricter rule than any current state law.
The unanimous recommendation by the five-member National Transportation Safety Board would make an exception for devices deemed to aid driver safety such as GPS navigation systems
A group representing state highway safety offices called the recommendation "a game-changer."
"States aren't ready to support a total ban yet, but this may start the discussion," Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association, said.
NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman acknowledged the recommendation would be unpopular with many people and complying would involve changing what has become ingrained behavior for many Americans.
While the NTSB doesn't have the power to impose restrictions, its recommendations carry significant weight with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers. Another recommendation issued Tuesday urges states to aggressively enforce current bans on text messaging and the use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices while driving.
"We're not here to win a popularity contest," she said. "No email, no text, no update, no call is worth a human life."
Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, while nine states and D.C. bar hand-held cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.
A total cellphone ban would be the hardest to accept for many people.
Leila Noelliste, 26, a Chicago blogger and business owner, said being able to talk on the cellphone "when I'm running around town" is important to self-employed people like herself.
"I don't think they should ban cellphones because I don't think you're really distracted when you're talking, it's when you're texting," she said. When you're driving and talking, "your eyes are still on the road."
The immediate impetus for the recommendation of state bans was a deadly highway pileup near Gray Summit, Mo., last year in which a 19-year-old pickup driver sent and received 11 texts in 11 minutes just before the accident.
NTSB investigators said they are seeing increasing texting, cellphone calls and other distracting behavior by drivers in accidents involving all kinds of transportation. It has become routine to immediately request the preservation of cellphone and texting records when an investigation is begun.
In the past few years, the board has investigated a train collision in which the engineer was texting that killed 25 people in Chatsworth, Calif.; a fatal accident on the Delaware River near Philadelphia in which a tugboat pilot was talking on his cellphone and using a laptop computer, and a Northwest Airlines flight that sped more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops.
Last year, a driver was dialing his cellphone when his truck crossed a highway median near Munford, Ind., and collided with a 15-passenger van. Eleven people were killed.
The board said the initial collision in the Missouri accident was caused by the inattention of the pickup driver who was texting a friend about events of the previous night. The pickup, traveling at 55 mph, hit 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 buses were killed. Thirty-eight other people were injured. 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.
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.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported earlier this year that pilot projects in Syracuse, N.Y., and Hartford, Conn., produced significant reductions in distracted driving by combining stepped-up ticketing with high-profile public education campaigns.
Before and after each enforcement wave, NHTSA researchers observed cellphone use by drivers and conducted surveys at drivers' license offices in the two cities. They found that in Syracuse, hand-held cellphone use and texting declined by a third. In Hartford, there was a 57 percent drop in hand-held phone use, and texting behind the wheel dropped by nearly three-quarters.
However, that was with blanket enforcement by police.
The board's decision to include hands-free cellphone use in its recommendation is likely to prove especially controversial. No states currently ban hand-free use although many studies show that it is often as unsafe as hand-held phone use because drivers' minds are on their conversations rather than what's happening on the road.
The board has previously recommended bans on texting and cellphone use by commercial truck and bus drivers and beginning drivers, but it had stopped short of calling for a ban on the use of the devices by adults behind the wheel of passenger cars.
About two out of 10 American drivers overall - and half of drivers between 21 and 24 - say they've thumbed messages or emailed from the driver's seat, according to a survey of more than 6,000 drivers by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
However, the survey found that many drivers don't think it's dangerous when they do it - only when others do.