Editorials

Hand-held or not, NTSB wants driver prohibitions

A new twist on prohibition is being undertaken by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Those are the people responsible for evaluating the causes of major accidents in the United States. They are most visible in coverage of major events, such as the crash of commercial airliners.

The agency's report on a horrendous accident involving multiple vehicles, at least two deaths and scores of injuries in Missouri convinced investigators they've seen enough carnage caused by cellphone users.

The pileup included two school buses filled with students on a field trip to an amusement park. The NTSB's response included this request to all 50 states and the District of Columbia:

Ban the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices for all drivers, use high visibility emphasis patrols to support the bans and launch a campaign to warn the public about the dangers of using portable electronic devices while driving.

Washington is one of the few states that already limits the use of these devices while driving -- at least the hand-held ones.

But as we wrote the other day, simple observation shows the law may be on the books but it's not on everyone's mind.

And we hear daily reports about distracted drivers causing every conceivable kind of tragedy while texting.

A crackdown by local police resulted in a real downturn in hand-held cellphone use by drivers when first implemented.

But nowadays, the law is ignored so readily we wouldn't be surprised to see a driver continue a conversation after being pulled over by the police.

In that way, it seems like Prohibition all over again.

Indeed various commentators are already scoffing at the idea that any such law as the NTSB proposes could ever be enacted.

Some state legislators and governors are doing the same.

Perhaps if people were exposed to the images of people being pried out of subway wrecks or children being sliced up by shredded metal from a school bus, they would be more accepting of the reasoning behind the request for new laws.

But in honesty, we'll have to admit that scare tactics alone didn't seem to reduce drunken driving. It took a combination of education, harsher punishment and a shift in social attitudes -- all working together over decades -- to begin to make a dent.

The truth is that technology has advanced far enough to keep us in constant contact with each other but it has not advanced far enough to keep us safe on the highway.

That safety is widely believed to be in the relatively near future for all of us. Already some cars will park themselves or slow down in cruise control when nearing another vehicle. Robot-controlled vehicles forming a train to share a leg of their travels together are already theoretically possible.

But we got the distractions before we got the auto-driven vehicles that would enable us to safely use them.

Prohibition involved an unpopular law that interfered with activities people had had a right to for generations.

Whether the government can break the hold that communication technology has on many drivers remains to be seen.

But with "emphasis" patrols always possible, and the big club in the form of grants the national government has over individual states -- and can withhold if anti-texting-cellphone laws aren't passed -- it seems the feds always get their way in these matters.

Who would have thought the wonders of our age could have such a downside?

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