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Despite US highway fatalities hitting an all-time low in 2010 — only 1.10 deaths per 100 million miles travelled — an increase in accidents caused by distracted driving is prompting the US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to call for a total ban on mobile phone use behind the wheel — including hands-free and voice activated devices.
There's also a similar movement in Europe. Such bans, however, are not welcome news for business travellers who need to work from the road.
While most countries prohibit the use of handheld phones when driving (including Canada, Australia and nearly every country in the European Union), US laws around mobile phone use are left up to individual states, resulting in a confusing patchwork for visitors from other countries. For example, only nine states prohibit talking on handheld mobile phones while driving — including business-travel-heavy destinations, such as California, New Jersey, New York and Washington, DC – and 35 states ban text messaging. None, as of yet, ban hands-free or voice activated devices.
According to a December 2011 report from the US Department of Transportation (DOT), 77% of the 6,002 drivers surveyed admitted to answering phone calls on all, some or most car trips and said that there are only a few situations (such as bad weather or bumper-to-bumper traffic) where they would refrain from talking on the phone. The DOT’s National Highway Travel Safety Administration estimates there were 3,092 deaths related to distracted driving in 2010.
In December 2010 the European Transport Safety Council made a similar call for a total ban on mobile phone use in cars. The organization called on employers to “prohibit the use of mobile phones whilst driving for work” and suggested imposing “the golden rule of ‘engine on, phone off’”. An October 2011 ((yes?)) Ford Motor Company survey of 4,300 European drivers found that nearly 50% of German drivers admitted to using handheld mobile phones, the highest percentage of the countries surveyed. And the Irish Independent newspaper reported that Ireland’s Road Safety Authority catches more the 110 drivers using mobile phones behind the wheel every day, despite laws to the contrary.
For business travellers, who typically spend a lot more time in automobiles instead of on planes, the idea of not being able to talk on the phone at all while driving is a stifling proposition. While it may make road warriors safer, it will ultimately impede on their ability to effectively do their job. Increased use of mobile phones in cars over the last decade has revolutionized business travel, increased productivity, nearly eliminated getting lost and helped travellers stay in better touch with families, colleagues and customers. Though I’ve never attempted to send a text behind the wheel, I’ve definitely taken a quick look at my email when at a stoplight. I’m certain that no road warrior is willing or able to give it up completely.
Luckily, the NTSB’s total ban on phone use is just a suggestion by the safety agency, and is not expected to become law. The call for a total ban in Europe has not made much progress, either. But it exposes an important question for frequent travellers: where do you draw the line when it comes to distracted driving?
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Chris McGinnis is the business travel columnist for BBC Travel