Driving and cellphones just don't mix

Drivers talking and texting on cellphones is an epidemic that only an outright prohibition can begin to end.

Common sense goes out the window for too many people who continue to talk and text while driving despite overwhelming evidence that the practice is dangerous and sometimes deadly.

More than 3,000 people died in highway crashes last year as a result of distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

On Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended that all states ban drivers from using cellphones, the first federal agency to do so.

It's about time. Casual observation while driving suggests that about half of the other drivers on the road are using cellphones. State laws - nine states ban the use of hand-held phones and 35 states have banned text-messaging while driving - have not curbed the American appetite to use cellphones while behind the wheel.

No one wants to see a driver with a bottle of vodka in her hands, so why should it be OK to have a cellphone? One study showed that drivers talking on cellphones are as likely to crash as drivers with a .08 percent blood alcohol level.

Drivers have a responsibility to be attentive and keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road, but too often they fail to do so.

While almost 90 percent of respondents in one survey agreed that cellphone use while driving is dangerous, 35 percent of them admitted to reading or sending a text message while navigating a vehicle in the previous 30 days.

That's outrageous. And stupid. Drivers should leave their cellphones at home if the temptation is so great that they can't refrain from using them.

"There's no call or text message that's so important that it can't wait," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.

And he's right.

The NTSB's nationwide cellphone ban while driving recommendation is just that - a suggestion. It is not legislation or a mandate. But the plea from the nation's leading federal safety advocate could be the muscle that lawmakers need to go to battle against the powerful cellphone industry lobby and Americans who are hooked on talking and texting while driving.

It's got to stop. Even smart and reasonable people admit to taking quick peeks at texts or emails while driving. They should know that at highway speeds they can cover the distance of a football field in the five seconds that they look at their phone. That's frightening.

Cellphones alone are not the cause of all distracted driving, but they are an obvious culprit that needs to be addressed. The NTSB's recommendation is controversial, because if adopted, it would ban all phones, even hands-free devices. Some people believe that goes too far.

But something drastic is going to have to happen to end the now-common practice of drivers getting behind the wheel, starting the engine, and placing a call.

Since 2005 Connecticut drivers have been required to use a hands-free device, and last year, the state strengthened its distracted-driving law by prohibiting texting and increasing the penalties for repeat offenders.

According to The Hartford Courant, the law is being enforced, with almost $1 million collected in related fines from just April 1 to June 30 this year.

But people are still driving and texting, lending credibility to the NTSB's recommendation. If nothing else, the suggestion has people talking about this very irresponsible behavior.

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