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NTSB calls for stricter bans on cell phone use while driving

The National Transportation Safety Board recommends that lawmakers and other regulators ban the use of hands-free and handheld cell phones while driving.

The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending that states ban the use of cell phones and other portable electronic devices while driving.

The five-member board unanimously agreed to the recommendation today, according to a press release. Specifically, the agency is recommending that the ban apply to both hands-free and handheld phones. Several states have already passed laws restricting text messaging while driving and many require drivers use hands-free devices while talking on the phone. The NTSB's recommendations go far beyond these current restrictions.

The NTSB doesn't have the authority to actually impose restrictions, but its recommendations often influence federal regulators as well as congressional and state lawmakers.

The Associated Press reported that the board's recommendations were prompted in part by a deadly highway accident in Missouri last year in which two people were killed and 35 people were injured. The 19-year-old driver who caused the accident had sent or received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes immediately before the crash, the AP reported. He collided into the back of a tractor trailer while traveling at 55 mph, the news report indicates.

The AP also reported that the NTSB has investigated several other incidents in the past few years involving distracted drivers, train conductors, and airline pilots. There was a commuter rail accident that killed 25 people in California in which the train engineer was texting. In Philadelphia there was an accident involving a tugboat pilot who was talking on his cell phone and using a laptop. And the agency also investigated a Northwest Airlines flight that flew more than 100 miles past its destination because both pilots were working on their laptops, according to the AP.

While there has been an outcry from some lawmakers and agencies to impose stricter bans on the use of cell phones while driving, there are now new reports that indicate previous studies that showed links between cell phone use and accidents may have been overstated.

Reuters recently reported that a study from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit has found that two previous studies that have shown a high correlation between cell phone use while driving and car accidents might have overestimated the risk.

Still, other researchers say even if some studies have overstated the potential risk, distracted driving remains an important issue for policy makers. A study published last year from University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth examined data from a government database that tracks deaths on U.S. public roads. According to that study, traffic accident deaths believed to have been caused by distracted driving rose 28 percent between 2005 and 2008, according to Reuters.

Fernando Wilson, an assistant professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center, who published that study told Reuters that several other studies suggest that cell phone use, especially text messaging, is hazardous.

"Most of the conventional thinking is that we need to do something to reduce" distracted driving, he told Reuters. "It's possible that the (earlier) study findings were overstated. But it's difficult to know by how much."

That said, overall traffic related deaths appear to be declining. Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation released a report that shows highway fatalities fell again in 2010, as they have done steadily since the 1980s. In fact, the report indicated that highway fatalities in 2010 fell to the lowest level since 1949, even as Americans drove more and even as they use more technology.

Despite the hype surrounding distracted driving, the report also indicates that a greater number of people die from alcohol related automobile accidents each year than from distracted driving. According to the data, only nine percent of highway fatalities in the U.S. in 2010 were caused by distracted driving, compared to 31 percent of deaths linked to alcohol.

Update 3:08 p.m. PT This story was updated with more background and statistics from the U.S. Department of Transportation.