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U.S. Won't Back Proposal Banning Driver Cell Phone Use

Source: WSJ - Sharon Terlep

Posted on 22 Dec 2011

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U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said he won't back a proposal to prohibit drivers from talking on cellphones, even hands-free devices, giving a boost to car makers and mobile-phone companies that stand to lose if regulators impose a ban.

The National Transportation Safety Board last week asked states to ban cellphones while driving in response to a deadly collision in Missouri last year that the agency blamed in part on a driver who was texting while driving. The NTSB wants the ban to include hands-free devices, which let drivers keep their hands on the wheel while talking through speakers or a headset.

Car makers and mobile-phone companies have promoted hands-free options, such as Ford Motor Co.'s Sync system, to drivers who want to use their mobile devices for talking and other functions while behind the wheel. NPD Group, a market-research firm, estimates that through November,

Americans have spent about $230 million on devices that allow hands-free operation of mobile phones. One-third of Americans talk regularly on a cellphone while on the road, according to a study by the American Automobile Association.

Ford's Sync would be affected by the ban but General Motor Co.'s OnStar wouldn't because its hands-free calling feature is integrated into the car and doesn't require a cellphone to connect, the NTSB said.

Mr. LaHood has pushed to reduce driver distraction. A year ago, he said a ban on cellphone use on the road may be necessary, but he didn't put forth a plan. During a news conference in Washington Wednesday, he declined to endorse the NTSB's proposal. Hands-free calling "is not the big problem in America," Mr. LaHood said. "If other people want to work on hands-free, so be it."

An NTSB spokesman said the board has no response to Mr. LaHood's comments. "Our recommendations are out there and we stand by them," he said.

Mr. LaHood's agency has rule-making authority over auto safety; the NTSB doesn't. So his comments are likely to bring relief to auto makers and the wireless industry,

Several lawmakers in states that have banned texting and talking on hand-hand devices while driving made statements in recent days that resistance to a ban on hands-free calling likely would be significant.

Auto makers and their lobbyists had no plans to marshal resources for a fight because they saw the proposal as unlikely to lead to new laws, people familiar with the situation said. CTIA, the group that represents wireless carriers and device makers, has said it wouldn't oppose local or state bans on using cellphones while driving.

Nine states and Washington, D.C., ban the use of hand-held cellphones while driving and 35 states, including D.C., prohibit texting while driving, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. But no state has an all-out ban on cellphones.

The debate over the comparative safety of hand-held and hands-free mobile devices in cars is far from over. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is part of the Department of Transportation, is to release a study late next year evaluating the level of risk when drivers use hand-held and hands-free devices.

In the next few weeks, the agency plans to release guidelines to assure that systems for navigation, entertainment and other functions are designed to be less distracting to drivers.