The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that at any given moment last year on America's streets and highways, the driver in nearly one in every 100 cars was texting, emailing, surfing the Web or otherwise using a hand-held electronic device.

Backed by that sobering fact and some deadly case reports including a deadly highway pileup in Missouri last year in which a 19-year-old pickup driver sent and received 11 texts in 11 minutes just before the accident the National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday urged all states to impose total bans on texting, emailing or chatting on a cellphone while driving, except for emergencies.

About two out of 10 American drivers overall and half of drivers between 21 and 24 admit to thumbing messages or emailing while driving. Unfortunately, the NHTSA also found that many drivers surveyed didn't think it was dangerous when they did it only when others did.

There are nine states and D.C. that bar hand-held cellphone use and 30 states that ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers but our state is not one of them.

Last month, Pennsylvania became the 35th state to forbid texting while driving, a ban that takes effect in early March. Several municipalities, including Harrisburg, Allentown and Bethlehem, have laws prohibiting texting while driving. But the laws lack enforcement teeth because the state's motor vehicle code supersedes any local driving ordinance. Allentown's ban was overturned by a judge.

Once the statewide texting ban goes into effect next year, local distracted driving laws apparently will become unenforceable, meaning hand-held cell phone use will be legal throughout the state.

Cellphones aren't the only distraction. Pennsylvania Department of Transportation safety press officer Fritzi Schreffler said that while following a car on Interstate 83, she recently observed the driver swerving in and out of his lane.

The reason for the erratic driving behavior was not alcohol-related. The idiot was trying to shave behind the wheel!

A total cellphone ban would be hard for many to accept but there certainly is ammunition for a valid argument.

Some argue that operating a cell phone is more dangerous than eating while driving since not only are you holding something while you steer, but your thoughts are not focused on the road. One observer said that you don't need to concentrate on a french fry, but you do have to concentrate to carry on a conversation.

Proponents of the proposed NTSB ban also dismiss the argument that it's fine to use a cell phone while driving if you're using a hands-free device. This may be an improvement to holding the phone to your ear, but once again, any time you're having a conversation on a cell phone, it's impossible to give your full attention to driving.

One observer posed this question to the many drivers who are locked into our techno society to consider: "People got along for centuries without phones, and for a century with regular land lines, but we can't function for a short period if we shut our cell phone off while driving?"

By Jim Zbick

jzbick@tnonline.com [1]