The NTSB’s Cluelessness Could Actually Hurt Car Safety

In Maryland, where I live, it is illegal to have a phone in your hand to talk or text while driving. But it seems that maybe one in four drivers I see on the road have a phone to an ear–and often, they are driving really badly. I fully support the notion that people should not phone and drive. But I think the recent call by the National Transportation Safety Board to ban the use of portable electronics by drivers is seriously misguided.

It’s a little hard to tell what the NTSB, whose powers a purely advisory, not regulatory, wants states to do since its recommendations seem to consist of a vague press release. Its justification for the recommendation consists of a string of scary anecdotes, the primary one being a horrifying tale of a driver who caused a multiple-fatality accident after sending 11 text messages in 11 minutes. Quoting the press release:

The safety recommendation specifically calls for the 50 states and the District of Columbia to ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (other than those designed to support the driving task) for all drivers. The safety recommendation also urges use of the NHTSA model of high-visibility enforcement to support these bans and implementation of targeted communication campaigns to inform motorists of the new law and heightened enforcement.

This is a truly bad idea for a number of reasons. First, the NTSB doesn’t tell us what a “portable electronic device” is or what it means for it to be “designed to support the driving task.” Are navigation devices, which seem to me to support driving, acceptable? Is it OK to type in your destination on some navigation device’s horrible keyboard while tooling down the road? What about speaking your destination to Google Maps on an  Android phone?

Second, the ban is unenforceable. Judging by what I see every day, the police cannot or will not enforce the laws already on the books.  Broadening the law, especially if it is complicated by making fine distinctions about what devices are permissible, will only make things worse. In my Acura TL, I can make or receive a call without taking even one hand off the wheel through a combination of buttons built into the steering wheel and voice control. Presumably, the NTSB recommendation would make using it illegal. But no law enforcement officer could ever say with certainty that I was talking on the phone while driving, and I can destroy the evidence at the push of a button. (Cathy Gellis discusses the legal and enforcement issues in more depth here.)

But finally, and most important, the NTSB seems to have no sense whatever of the growing use of mobile phones as the data link in telematics systems for everything from entertainment to safety. The craziest idea, not included in the NTSB recommendation but discussed by the U.S. Department of Transportation, is technology that would somehow block phone transmissions from inside of moving cars.  Never mind the technical difficulties in doing this or the protests that are sure to arise from the FCC, it’s a terrible idea.

If On Star is acceptable, even welcome as a safety enhancement, what is wrong with a system that performs similar functions through a phone rather than a radio embedded in the car? SYNC, a collaboration between Ford and Microsoft uses a phone to link to everything from in-car entertainment to real-time car diagnostics–and even monitoring the health of the driver.

The truth is that cars are becoming connected devices and for a whole lot of reasons, it makes more sense to use a phone for the link than building it into the car. The NTSB seems to be perfectly oblivious to this trend and in the long run, the board’s recommendation is more likely to hurt than help safety.

Distracted driving is a real menace, and phone use is a big part of the problem. Education and common sense might go a long way toward alleviating it: use a hands-free system, never text and drive, and if you must use the phone while driving, keep the conversations short and simple. The NTSB ban is the wrong way to go and buy denying the many benefits of electronics in cars, it could actually make things worse.


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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

3 thoughts on “The NTSB’s Cluelessness Could Actually Hurt Car Safety”

  1. When I read this article I expected to be able to criticize it on the grounds of Mr. Wildstrom’s reading too much into a summary statement. But when I followed up and checked the NTSB site, it became clear that Steve has a very good point.

    Not only is the site bereft of data and long on anecdote, but as exemplified by the press release cited, it demonstrates how rapidly the NTSB extrapolates from specific instance to general principle rather than the other way around. It’s not that the examples cited back up the data; they are the data. During its board meeting on the Grey Summit crash, the NTSB literally went from “there was a crash following 11 texts in 11 minutes” to “we must therefore ban all personal electronic devices.”

    Whatever the way to determine what to do about distraction-caused accidents induced by the inappropriate use of “portable electronic devices,” or anything else for that matter, this isn’t it. This is as reckless as the driver who texted, multiplied by the reach of the NTSB.

    Perusing the rest of the site, one gets the clear impression that this group consists of a committee of ambulance chasers rather than level-headed citizens interested in making serious policy recommendations.

    Years ago my son was involved in a bus crash that killed a couple of his friends and injured dozens of others. The NTSB was involved heavily in the crash investigation, and we thought it appropriate (if possibly a bit heavy-handed) that they be there and report their findings. It never occurred to us that this is essentially all that they do. That realization is almost as horrifying as the incidents they investigate.

    In my view the problem has to be solved where it actually lies: inside the heads of drivers. Placing virtual restraints on hands and heads won’t work. They’ll only find other distractions (note that in the Grey Summit case, the NTSB was comparatively quiet about the bus driver who was distracted by the vehicle on the shoulder).

    It may be more difficult in our melting pot culture to create cultural change than it was in “the olden days,” but we’ve done it before. People can be motivated by stories to change. But we need and deserve more than just stories.

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