published Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Tighten phone/texting rules

The question, it now seems, is not if texting and, perhaps, cell phone use by drivers will be banned in most of the nation, but when. Public opinion and legislative momentum are moving in that direction. Given the accumulation of evidence about the perils of using handheld or hands-free cell phones and similar devices while behind the wheel, the movement to prohibit their use while driving deserves widespread support.

Current laws regarding cell phones and texting are a mixed bag. Some states have strict laws against texting, but do allow cell phone use. Some ban the use of handheld phones, but not hands-free devices. A few, regrettably, have no regulations that specifically address cell phones, though their use may be addressed by distracted driving statutes or by local laws. Those who use the nation's roads would be far safer if cell phone and texting laws in the United States were more uniform.

Many regulators and legislators already are doing their part. On Tuesday, for instance, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that truckers and other commercial drivers should not be allowed to talk on the phone or text while behind the wheel. The recommendation came after a hearing that ruled that a truck driver on his phone was responsible for a crash that killed 11 people in Kentucky last year.

The NTSB, by law, can't issue a ban on cell calls and texting. The board does have considerable influence, though. Its recommendation to the Federal Motor Carrier and Safety Administration and each of the 50 states that such bans be established should attract considerable attention. Hopefully, the result would be new or stronger bans against texting and cell phone use while driving.

In some places stronger actions were underway before the NTSB alert. In Chattanooga, coincidentally, an ordinance to make texting while driving illegal was presented to the City Council on Tuesday. It was deferred for two weeks because several members of the council thought the ordinance as written was confusing. That can and should be remedied. A revised and carefully vetted statute should be approved at first opportunity.

A local ordinance might seem like overkill when the state has a law that bans texting while driving, but city judges asked for an ordinance so they can hear cases. That's a reasonable request that would enhance enforcement efforts.

No one should have to share the road with a driver whose attention is diverted by a cell phone or the need to send or read a text message. Approval of stronger federal, state and local laws to halt those practices should reduce the mayhem on the nation's roads.

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