U.S. safety investigators have recently called for a nationwide ban on texting and cell phone use while driving, a prohibition that would include certain applications of hands-free technology becoming more common in new cars, according to a recent Reuters article.

The National Transportation Safety Board recommendation covers only portable devices, but it still goes beyond any measures proposed or imposed to date by regulators and states, most of which already ban texting while behind the wheel. More than 3,000 people were killed in distracted driving crashes in the United States in 2010, according to Transportation Department figures.

Motorists participating in a Transportation Department survey released last week acknowledged few situations in which they would not use a cell phone or text while driving, although most supported measures to curb the practice, says Reuters. The five-member NTSB recommendation to states for a ban, except in an emergency, stemmed from an investigation of a Missouri chain-reaction crash that killed two people last year, an accident blamed on a driver who was texting.

Meanwhile—and insurers need to take special note of this—automobile manufacturers keep falling all over themselves to offer new features related to connectivity. So how do automakers respond to the proposed ban?

According to Reuters, Ford referred inquiries to the industry's trade group in Washington, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers (AAM), which said it was reviewing the NTSB recommendation. “What we do know is that digital technology has created a connected culture in the United States and it's forever changed our society: consumers always expect to have access to technology, so managing technology is the solution,” the trade association says.

The group adds that on-board connectivity features are “designed to be used in a way that helps drivers keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.” Really? And just how does any Internet-connected communication device help us to do that? True, a hands-free device will enable a driver to keep hands on the wheel, but hands are not the problem. What statements like that of AAM ignore is the phrase “distracted driving.” A driver’s hands may be in the right place, but if his or her attention is not engaged in the very risky task of guiding a motor vehicle, the potential for mayhem and destruction is markedly increased, as the NTSB example shows.

Reuters points out that cell phone and other communications technologies are “ubiquitous,” thus it would be difficult to enforce a ban on them. Yes, it would be difficult, but that is hardly an excuse for failing to do something that will save lives (3,000 in 2010, remember?). Cigarettes were wildly popular and ubiquitous at one time as well, but that didn’t stop governments from banning them in buildings, restaurants, public places and other hazardous areas.

I have to admit that I love the freedoms my country affords me, and I am generally against bans that restrict those freedoms. In the end, however, if my exercise of freedom can be shown to be dangerous to others, I need to stop such an exercise. People will eventually get used to drastically reduced automotive connectivity, just as most of us don’t think twice anymore about the smoking ban in restaurants.

Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Ara using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at ara@aratremblytechnology.com.

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