The National Transportation Safety Board today urged all U.S. states to ban drivers from using electronic devices while driving, including for text messaging.
The NTSB issued the recommendation after several investigations that found texting to be the cause of deadly accidents.
In Missouri, two people died and 38 were injured in a pileup in August 2010 after a 19-year-old driver rammed his pickup truck into the back of a tractor truck and was then hit by one school bus and then another. The teen was texting while driving, the NTSB found after an investigation, leading to today's ruling strongly recommending a ban on all mobile usage.
"According to NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], more than 3,000 people lost their lives last year in distraction-related accidents," NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman said in a statement. "It is time for all of us to stand up for safety by turning off electronic devices when driving. No call, no text, no update, is worth a human life."
Though the NTSB doesn't have the power to enforce such a regulation, experts say the recommendation itself would have significant implications.
"No one of the NSTB's stature has made a recommendation like this. It will make a qualitative difference," said Barbara Harsha, executive director of the Governors Highway Safety Association.
She added that the change is likely to come over time and will be "dependent on technology that will prohibit the use of these devices while the car is in motion."
Consumers can buy, and some cars are equipped with, bluetooth technology that wont' let drivers answer their phone or text while driving. It sends an automatic message that the person is driving and will return the call. The technology is in its infancy but many see it gaining more traction.
"As that technology is more widespread, the policy will go along with it," Harsha said.
The biggest challenge, however, will be imposing regulation at the state level. In a political climate where states are increasingly sensitive about overregulation, observers say it remains to be seen whether NTSB's recommendation will go into effect.
"It could be significant because it is the expert agency at the federal level. But I think the state legislature will have to pass legislation and we're not in a climate of strong regulation, so it's just not clear" how big of an impact today's recommendation will have, said Carl Tobias, a professor of law at the University of Richmond.
Distracted driving, which includes texting and talking on a cell phone, is a major cause of death on the road. In 2009, more than 5,400 people died and nearly 550,000 were injured in crashes linked to distraction, according to the Department of Transportation.
Because the problem is rampant among teen drivers, some groups that have advocated for a ban -- including one led by Oprah Winfrey -- have launched aggressive campaigns to target this vulnerable group.
But some experts say that while the problem exists, the science behind the numbers doesn't support a ban.
"There is no doubt that cell phone use and texting is a problem. But the simplistic studies that have been done by the government do not account for the situational use of cell phones," said Fred Mannering, professor of civil engineering at Purdue University and associate director for research at the Center for Road Safety. "The government really does not know if cell phones are being used in traffic situations that require high attention or are high risk, for example, merging on a congested freeway, or in low risk situations, for example on an rural freeway with no surrounding traffic."
Nine states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands, already bar drivers from using any electronic devices while driving. Thirty-five states and D.C. ban texting while driving. But virtually all states allow drivers to use hands-free devices, even though talking can be a distraction.
An overwhelming number of Americans support a ban on texting while driving.
A CBS News poll conducted in May found that 94 percent of Americans said they believed texting while driving should be outlawed.
But despite that view, a record number of Americans are using their electronic devices while on the road. Forty-seven percent of all adults surveyed in a Pew poll in June, 2010 conceded that they had at least once sent or read a text message while they were behind the wheel.
An NHTSA survey released last week found that nearly two out of every 10 drivers and half of drivers ages 21 to 24 said they are texting while driving. According to the survey, drivers younger than 25 are two to three times more likely than their older counterparts to read or send text messages or emails.
The problem is so rampant that even the White House held a summit in 2009 to discuss legislative action to ban texting while driving. President Obama signed legislation that would bar federal employees from texting behind the wheel.