The nonprofit National Safety Council on Monday called on all U.S. states to ban the use of cell phones while driving.
The NSC, which says it counts 55,000 companies as members, compared talking or texting while driving to drunken driving and urged states to ban even the use of phones with hands-free kits.
No state has completely banned cell-phone use while driving, though 23 have passed some form of restriction, according to John Ulczycki, the NSC's executive director of communications and public affairs. The group believes it will take years to reach its goal, but it has gone through similar efforts. The NSC has spent years pushing for stronger laws on seatbelt use and drunken driving, he said.
The group said cell phone use contributes to 6 percent of all crashes, referring to a study by the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis. That represents 636,000 crashes, 12,000 serious injuries and 2,600 deaths each year, plus a financial cost of $43 billion, the NSC said, citing the Harvard study.
Almost all driving laws in the U.S. are set by states. Car cell-phone bans have been advancing in recent years. Eighteen states, plus the District of Columbia, have banned teen-aged drivers from using phones while driving, according to the NSC. But only six have banned the use of handheld phones for everyone, and they have all allowed the use of hands-free systems. That isn't good enough, according to the NSC.
"Hands-free laws are giving people a placebo, in effect," Ulczycki said. A law that allows people to make hands-free calls sends a message that this is safer, but research is beginning to indicate that it's not, because either kind of call distracts the driver from the road, he said. Laws allowing hands-free use may even increase the accident rate if drivers make more calls in the false belief that they are safe, Ulczycki added.
Calling while driving should concern businesses, too, because crashes can cause injuries and raise costs, maybe even opening up employers to liability, Ulczycki said. An NSC survey indicated 45 percent of its member companies have banned the practice for their employees. For 85 percent of them, the policies haven't affected productivity, the group said. Member companies come from a wide range of industries and join the group to take advantage of safety education and training, Ulczycki said.
The mobile phone industry group CTIA disagreed with the NSC's position. It cited situations where cell-phone use could be critical, such as when children need to tell parents they are waiting somewhere to be picked up.
"We believe that safe, sensible and limited use of a cell phone when you're behind the wheel is possible," wrote John Walls, CTIA's vice president of public affairs, in a blog post Monday. "If someone is driving irresponsibly because of cell phone use, they should be cited for that. And under current law, they can be."