Cover Story: NTSB sends a message

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - The National Transportation Safety Board is calling for a nationwide ban on cell phones while driving.

The agency is calling on states to enact laws to impose total bans except for emergencies.

One official even says using a cell phone while driving is just as dangerous as driving drunk.

While the NTSB doesn't have the power to ban cell phones in the car its recommendations carry a lot of weight with federal regulators and lawmakers from Washington all the way down.

It was a deadly wreck in eastern Missouri last year that got the NTSB to call for a crack down on cell phones.

A 19-year old in a pickup truck caused a massive freeway pileup involving two school busses which killed two people and injured three dozen.

The teenager sent or received 11 text messages in 11 minutes.

NTSB member from South Carolina Robert Sumwalt didn't mince words.

"This is becoming the new DUI. It's becoming an epidemic," he said.

As cell phones have gained in popularity and texting has taken off, the problem has exploded.

Government records show distracted driving caused 900,000 accidents last year killing more than 3,000 people.

Every year for the last several years bills have been introduced to curb cell phone use and never gone anywhere.  Two years ago North Carolina law banning texting while driving but troopers say it's had mixed results.

"I'm not really sure about it being effective. We're still having people call in complaints about texting and driving," said Master Trooper Mark Helms.

Troopers have written more than 300 citations since enforcement began last year and it hasn't stopped the practice.

"It looks like the more that folks are getting used to having a cell phone in their every day life the more that texting is becoming a problem," said Helms.

Whether this recommendation by the NTSB will carry any weight with Carolinas' lawmakers remains to be seen.

For people who rely on using cell phones in the car, they'd like to see a provision similar to New York's that would allow the use of hands-free devices.

"I don't think there's been the political will," said North Carolina Rep. Becky Carney, a Democrat from Charlotte.  "The bills have been filed, they just have not gone forward. I believe they should. I believe we should look at hands free only."

South Carolina meanwhile hasn't passed any legislation to curb cell phone use while driving.  The state also hasn't required motorcyclist to wear helmets despite urging from the federal government.

Will the NTSB recommendations get states to enact tougher rules?

"I think North Carolina is liable to take it seriously. I think South Carolina hasn't even yet recognized any danger with the cell phone in the legislative sense," said AAA Carolinas' Tom Crosby.

The five members of the NTSB unanimously recommended the cell phone ban apply even to hands-free devices but not to in-vehicle technology.

Right now while a majority of states ban texting while driving no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.

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