The United States National Transportation Safety Board made a pretty radical recommendation last week, saying that the US public shouldn’t even be allowed to use their phones with hands-free devices while driving. Few argue that operating a hand-held phone is, at the least, a distraction while behind the wheel, but hands-free devices, whether wired or Bluetooth, have largely been seen as a safer alternative. To the the NTSB, though “safer” just wasn’t safe enough, so it made its recommendation to prohibit even those solutions. The way the US government is set up, though, the NTSB doesn’t get to make the rules itself. That duty falls upon the Department of Transportation, and Secretary Ray LaHood has made it clear that he has no interest in making the NTSB’s advice into law.
It’s not that LaHood is deaf to these concerns; he’s already said that such a blanket ban on phone use while driving may be a possibility one day, but for the moment says that using hands-free devices to make calls while driving “is not the big problem in America.”
Like so many other issues the government faces (the security theater of the TSA comes to mind), this boils down to a matter of balancing safety against convenience. You could eliminate all deaths due to drunk driving by simply taking ALL cars off the road, but no one’s arguing that the trade-off would be worth it in that case. For now, at least, we know where the DoT’s position stands, but that could easily change with a shift in the perception of the danger phones pose. With more and more of us carrying smartphones, today’s handsets are arguably a greater distraction risk than ever before, and that shift could be coming sooner than we expect it.