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U.S. Safety Board Urges Nationwide Ban on Drivers' Use of Cellphones

TUESDAY, Dec. 13 (HealthDay News) -- In the aftermath of a deadly crash in Missouri that killed two and injured 38, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board is recommending a nationwide ban on drivers' use of cellphones and other personal electronic devices, except in emergencies.

According to media reports, the board was meeting Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss the fatal pileup that occurred last year in Gray Summit, Mo. The NTSB noted that the 19-year-old driver of a pickup truck involved in the crash sent or received 11 text messages within the 11 minutes prior to the pileup, including one just before impact.

The pickup truck collided with the back of a tractor trailer and was rear-ended by a school bus, which in turn was rear-ended by another school bus, the Associated Press reported. The pickup driver and a 15-year-old on one of the buses were killed.

In her opening statement on Tuesday, NTSB chairman Deborah Hersman acknowledged that, "We will never know whether the driver was typing, reaching for the phone, or reading a text when his pickup ran into the truck in front of him without warning," the Washington Post reported. "But, we do know he had been distracted -- cognitively, manually, and visually -- while driving. Driving was not his only priority."

According to the AP, NTSB board member Robert Sumwalt said that Missouri had a law in place at the time banning texting by drivers under the age of 21, but he believes the state was not aggressive enough in enforcing the statute.

The perils of distracted driving may extend across the United States, however.

In a recent Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll of more than 2,800 U.S. adults, released in late November, 59 percent said that while driving they had talked on a non-hands-free cellphone, and 37 percent said they had texted while driving. For others, the practice is more habitual: 18 percent of survey respondents said they "often or sometimes" sent or received/read text messages while driving.

Some 39 states plus the District of Columbia have enacted laws regulating the use of mobile devices in vehicles. But a recent study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that use of cellphones and other distractions while driving has actually risen over time, despite these efforts.

A study published in 2010 in the American Journal of Public Health estimated that texting alone helped cause 16,000 deaths in car accidents between 2001 and 2007.

One expert who deals with the aftermath of traffic accidents applauded the NTSB recommendation.

"I wholeheartedly support a ban on personal electronic devices, which provide an unprecedented degree of distraction that's very dangerous," said Dr. Lisandro Irizarry, chair of the emergency department at The Brooklyn Hospital Center in New York City. "We seem to have gotten beyond 'hands-free' devices, and everyone -- from teenagers to senior citizens -- is texting. It's very easy to get distracted, especially when driving, and end up in the ER," Irizarry said.

While the NTSB lacks the power to impose restrictions itself, federal and state lawmakers rely on the board's recommendations when drafting new legislation, the AP noted.

More information

There's more on distracted driving at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

-- HealthDay Staff

SOURCES: Lisandro Irizarry, M.D., chair, emergency department, The Brooklyn Hospital Center, New York City; Nov. 30, 2011, Harris Interactive/HealthDay poll; Washington Post; Associated Press

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