It's a startling headline: "U.S. Safety Board Urges Cellphone Ban for Drivers." But nobody needs to worry about federal agents policing their iPhone or Blackberry.
The National Safety Transportation Board, whose job it is to improve the safety of all kinds of travel, doesn't have the power to regulate any kind of driving practice. But it's now urging the states to adopt a ban on cell phones, including hands-free gizmos like headsets or Bluetooth. The NTSB says "distracted driving" causes about 3,000 highway deaths per year, including some caused not by talking on phones, but by sending text messages or E-mail on them. With even more amusements on their way to your phone—including video and who knows what else—the NTSB wants to identify a trend that's becoming dangerous.
But Americans tolerate all kinds of danger, death and even mayhem in the name of personal freedom. We insist on it, in fact, and policymakers listen. The U.S. political system routinely prioritizes freedom over safety. Some examples:
Smoking. Half a million Americans die from smoking-related illness every year, including 50,000 people who die from other people's smoke. But there's no likelihood of a ban on cigarettes, even though the link between smoking and cancer is now unambiguous. Some cities ban smoking in restaurants or public places, largely because of the health risk posed to others. But Americans generally view smoking as a matter of personal choice, with anybody free to degrade their own health or even pursue deadly habits.
Guns. About 32,000 Americans die from firearms each year, including 1,500 kids. Yet vigorous activity by the gun lobby and a laissez-faire attitude among the majority of Americans have institutionalized gun violence as a fact of life. Occasional massacres, like the Gabrielle Giffords shooting earlier this year in Tucson, in which 19 people were shot and six killed, or the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre in which 32 died and 25 others were hurt, rarely lead to stricter gun laws.
Some municipalities, such as New York City, have bans on certain types of weapons, but they usually remain localized. And even New York must cope with a steady supply of guns brought in from states where laws are loose. Meanwhile, there's no serious talk of any kind of gun ban that would extend beyond the borders of a few cities.
Obesity. You can't ban people from being fat, but if you could, you might save 300,000 lives per year. Obesity, of course, is attributable to many causes, involving food, lifestyle, mental health and all kinds of things the government couldn't control if it wanted to. There have been a few wan efforts to do things like label the fat content in restaurant food, under the premise that people will eat better if they're more aware what they're putting in their mouths. But support for anything more aggressive than that is thin.
Cell phones are benign compared with guns, cigarettes and junk food. In fact, when used as intended, they're not inherently dangerous to anybody. The death toll from distracted driving, while obviously a growing problem, is still far lower than from other activities that aren't banned. Plus, cell phones have obvious utility. For busy people with long commutes—which must include millions of Americans—cell phones have become an indispensable time-saving device. They also allow parents to check in with their kids and vice versa. I'd wager that many of the NTSB's own staffers use cell phones in precisely the way their agency wants to ban.
It's fashionable to bash the government, but the NTSB is one agency that should make Americans feel satisfied with the use of their tax dollars. Its research on distracted driving and many other things is usually highly scientific, and rarely questioned. The NTSB's methodical investigations of virtually every airplane, trucking and railroad crash in America have saved countless lives through safety improvements and made the NTSB the world's model for a safety agency. Anybody who doubts its effectiveness should ask whether they'd rather put their family on an airliner in the United States, where there hasn't been a fatal commercial airline accident since 2009, or in lightly regulated Russia, where at least nine commercial planes have crashed this year alone.
The NTSB doesn't regulate transportation; it only makes recommendations about how to improve safety. By design, the NTSB doesn't worry about how much reforms or new rules will cost, or how much inconvenience they will cause. That's up to other agencies--federal, state or local--that have to decide whether recommended safety reforms are practical or not. Sometimes they're not.
By calling for a cell-phone ban, the NTSB is raising awareness of a new problem that most people aren't aware of, including phone-addicted teenage drivers and their parents. It would take a stoic governor out of touch with voter preferences and unconcerned about re-election to sign an actual cell-phone ban into law, but some states may mount public-awareness campaigns, as many do now to discourage drunk driving. There may even be a few targeted bans, such as laws against cell-phone use by young drivers or against texting in particular.
But the cell phone has practically become standard equipment in most American cars, and there's virtually no chance the government will pry it out of there. The NTSB probably knows that. But it wants us to think about it anyway. We probably should.