Editorial: NTSB sends a message

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 14, 2011

It’s tempting to make or take a quick cellphone call or skim a text message while driving. “I’m a safe driver,” we tell ourselves. “I can do this without endangering myself or others.”
It’s only dangerous when the other guy does it, right?
Recommendations issued Tuesday by the National Transportation Safety Board reinforce how often that’s a fatal mistake. Distracted driving has become such a safety concern, the NTSB wants all states to implement a total ban on texting, emailing or using a cellphone while driving, except for emergencies. Think of it as zero tolerance toward telecommunication distractions.
NTSB investigators are especially concerned about a rise in crashes linked to texting. The increase comes despite a flurry of restrictive legislation among states that have banned texting while driving, including North Carolina. The state also bans email and Internet use while driving; it restricts cellphone use for drivers under 18, but not for adults.
A proposal to extend the state’s cellphone ban to adults garnered little support in the N.C. Legislature this year. But adults aren’t immune to the hazards. Kannapolis police believe cellphone use contributed to a fatal crash last August in which a pickup ran off the road and struck a median, killing the driver. An open cellphone was found on the seat.
Federal safety officials say that at any given moment, nearly one out of every 100 U.S. motorists is using a handheld electronic device to text, talk, email, surf the Web or perhaps even download a new app. If that 1 percent sounds like a small risk, consider the millions of drivers on the road. The numbers and accidents add up. About 5,500 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in the United States in 2009, and another 450,000 were injured. (And don’t think having a hands-free device lets you off the hook; even if your hands are on the wheel, your mind is likely to be more focused on the conversation than on the road.)
Is any text message or call really so important that it can’t wait until you park the car? Can a call really be worth risking human life?
Despite the mounting fatalities involving distracted driving, including a pileup in Missouri that killed 11 people last year, the NTSB says it expects its proposed ban will be controversial, and the agency is probably right. Many drivers are simply in denial about the risks. Or maybe they’re just too distracted to be concerned.