The National Transportation Safety Board on Tuesday called for a nationwide ban on drivers' use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices, including "hands-free" phones.
Citing National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data attributing more than 3,000 deaths last year to distracted driving, board chairwoman Deborah A.P. Hersman said "it is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving."
The board urged enactment of legislation by all 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the non-emergency use of electronic devices except for those "designed to support the driving task," such as navigation systems. It also called for vigorous police enforcement of the ban.
"No call, no text, no update is worth a human life," Ms. Hersman said.
No state currently has an outright ban on cell phone use while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Nine states and D.C. ban the use of handheld phones and 35 states plus D.C. ban texting while driving.
In Pennsylvania, the General Assembly recently passed, and Gov. Tom Corbett signed, a ban on texting while driving. It will take effect in March. The state does not restrict cell phone conversations.
The NTSB proposal drew praise from Marcel Just, a Carnegie Mellon University neuroscientist who has studied how cell phones affect driving ability.
"Banning the use of cell phones by drivers in non-emergency situations could be another dramatic step forward in further reducing the unacceptably high levels of driving-related fatalities in the U.S., which is most recently at about 33,000 people killed annually," he said in a statement issued by the university.
"While recent improvements in automobile safety equipment have made an enormous contribution, it remains to make improvements in the most important factor, driver performance, and to save thousands of additional lives per year. We are our own worst enemy."
Mr. Just has concluded that listening to someone on the other end of the phone reduces the brain activity associated with driving by more than one-third. His research has also shown that hands-free devices don't eliminate the danger of distraction.
"Drivers need to keep not only their hands on the wheel; they also have to keep their brains on the road," he said. "The clear implication of our work is that engaging in a conversation could jeopardize the judgment and reaction time if an atypical or unusual driving situation arose. Driving in quick-moving traffic is no place for an involved phone discussion, let alone texting."
A leading industry group, CTIA-The Wireless Association, reiterated its support for a ban on texting while driving but said it would "defer to state and local lawmakers and their constituents" on whether to enact more stringent measures.
"CTIA and the wireless industry agree that when drivers are behind the wheel, safety should be their number one priority," said the group's president, Steve Largent.
While the NTSB doesn't have the power to impose restrictions, its recommendations carry weight with federal regulators and congressional and state lawmakers.
The board cited "the deadliness of distraction across all modes of transportation."
In August 2010, on Interstate 44 in Missouri, a pickup truck rammed a truck tractor that had slowed in a work zone, causing a chain-reaction crash that involved two school buses. Two died and 38 were injured. The investigation revealed that the pickup driver sent and received 11 text messages just before the crash.
Other cases it noted:
• In 2010 in Kentucky, a tractor-trailer whose driver was having a phone conversation crossed a median and hit a passenger van, killing 11.
• In 2009, two airline pilots were out of radio communication with air traffic control for more than an hour because they were distracted by their personal laptops, and overflew their intended destination by more than 100 miles.
• In 2008 in California, a commuter train engineer ran a red signal while texting. The train collided head-on with a freight train, killing 25.
• In 2004, 11 high school students were hurt when a motor coach driver, distracted by his hands-free cell phone, struck the underside of a stone bridge in Alexandria, Va.
The board cited "exponential growth" in the use of cell phones and other devices in the past 20 years.
Globally, there are 5.3 billion mobile phone subscribers, or 77 percent of the world population. In the United States, mobile phone subscriptions exceed the total population, it said.