DANA MILBANK: What’s driving this silly ban on texting and in-car use?

By Dana Milbank

WASHINGTON – Here in the capital, there is a whole new etiquette at stoplights. Upon arriving at a red light, drivers apply the brakes, pick up their mobile devices, and begin reading and sending emails. The signal to resume driving comes not from the green light but from some motorist in the back tapping politely on the horn.
It is not uncommon to drive up to a green light and discover several vehicles still immobile because none of the operators has yet noticed the green light. A horn tap will cause the procession slowly to restart, as drivers, one hand on the wheel and one holding their devices, type a few last words. Or paragraphs.
So you can imagine my surprise Wednesday as I was perusing the Twitter feed on my iPhone while driving downtown. I came across this bulletin: “NTSB calls for a nationwide ban on driver use of personal electronic devices.”
I spit my coffee onto my laptop and nearly cut myself with the electric razor I had been using.
They were proposing to “ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices” – including hands-free mobile phones – “for all drivers.” It’s an absurd overreaction to an unrelated problem.
The accident investigation that spurred the proposal was of a grisly crash in Missouri in 2010 caused by a driver who was texting – which is definitely a bad thing to do behind the wheel – instead of talking, which is not nearly such a bad thing. If embraced by lawmakers and the administration, this move will jeopardize Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s noble effort to crack down on distracted driving.
I’ve never had a distracted-driving related accident, but this is probably a matter of luck. I’ve downloaded iTunes while driving, made reservations on OpenTable and done part of a washingtonpost.com webchat.
Writing in Friday’s Washington Post, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman claimed: “Studies published in 2008 in the journal Brain Research as well as in the Journal of Experimental Psychology show that it is more distracting to engage in a cellphone conversation than it is to talk with a passenger.”
Incredibly, the NTSB has no data to support this radical proposal – only some laboratory-based studies, and those aren’t conclusive.
The Journal of Experimental Psychology study concludes that, while cellphone conversations can be more dangerous than those with a passenger, a passenger who is “constantly commenting and directing attention in an overcontrolling fashion has a potentially negative impact on performance.”
So, to be evenhanded, the NTSB should also propose a ban on back-seat driving, a ban on transporting children, a ban on radios and cup-holders, and a ban on GPS devices, so that we can go back to those safer times when we blocked the windshield with gas-station maps.
The absolute ban is the equivalent of defining a drunk driver as any motorist with a blood-alcohol content above 0.00. This would turn us into a nation of lawbreakers and erase the distinction between what is truly dangerous and what is relatively safe.
Disagree? Send me an email. I’m going out for a drive.
Dana Milbank’s email address is danamilbank@ washpost.com. He writes for The Washington Post Writers Group.