Washington, DC -- State governments should prohibit all drivers from using portable electronic devices such as cellphones while behind the wheel, the National Trasnportation Safety Board unanimously recommended Tuesday.
The recommendation from the safety board followed a hearing on a Missouri highway crash on Aug. 5, 2010, which killed two people and injured 38. The chain-reaction crash of four vehicles included two school buses.
The board ruled that the initial collision was caused by a pickup driver, Daniel Schatz, 19, who was one of the fatalities, sending 11 text messages in the 11 minutes before the crash. His pickup rammed the back of a tractor-trailer that had slowed for construction on Interstate 44 near Gray Summit.
Schatz's truck was then rear-ended by a school bus, which was rear-ended by another school bus. The buses, which investigators found had brake problems, carried members of the John F. Hodge High School band. A student, Jessica Brinker, 15, who sat in the last row of the first bus, died in the crash.
"Two lives lost in the blink of an eye," said Deborah Hersman, the board chairman. "No call, no text, no update is worth a life."
An estimated 3,092 traffic fatalities in 2010 were blamed on distracted drivers, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. More than one in six drivers send text messages while driving, and nearly half of drivers less than 25 years old are doing it, according to a NHTSA survey released last week.
"This is becoming the new DUI," said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the safety board. "It's becoming an epidemic."
The District of Columbia and 35 states ban text messaging for all drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Administration. No state bans all cellphone use for drivers, but nine states and D.C. ban drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving.
Missouri has a state law prohibiting drivers under 21 years old like the pickup driver from sending texts while driving. But state police issued only 120 tickets for the offense during a two-year period, Sumwalt said.
The board's federal recommendation for private vehicles would greatly expand previous calls to prohibit cellphone use among commercial drivers.
In September 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration banned commercial drivers from text messaging while operating trucks and buses. The rule applies to about 4 million drivers.
The agency just adopted a prohibition Nov. 23 against commercial drivers using hand-held cellphones while behind the wheel. Violations carry a $2,750 fine.
By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY