Carriers remain quiet on a watchdog’s controversial recommendation for a total cell phone ban in automobiles, caught between advocating for profits and public safety.
The National Transportation Safety Board said states should ban the use of all mobile devices while driving, including hands-free headsets. The ruling came on the heels of a study that found one of every 11 U.S. traffic deaths in 2010 was caused by distracted driving.
A total ban would create a sticky situation for cell phone carriers. Nearly 75 percent of Americans commute to work alone in their cars, and travel at least 25 minutes each way. A ban that includes hands-free calling would likely result in a major drop in minutes used by consumers, meaning significant profit loss for carriers.
Even so, most carriers are unlikely to fight any government-backed legislation to ban cell phones. The Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, or CTIA, a group that represents mobile phone manufacturers and carriers, joined Sprint in fighting a ban on handheld devices in California five years ago, but says it won’t oppose local or state bans on calling while driving in the future.
“We came to the conclusion that with respect to the consumer, it really is best to defer to their choice and their judgment as to what laws should be applied,” said CTIA spokesman John Wells.
Carriers may also be keeping mum because the NTSB’s recommendation hasn’t gained much traction so far. Authorities debated the merits of the recommendation last week, but many politicians and law enforcement officials say a total ban would pose significant challenges for police.
“It would be very difficult to enforce, just as the texting ban is difficult to enforce,” said Barbara Harsha, executive director of The Governors Highway Safety Association, pointing out how easy it already is for drivers to conceal mobile devices and drop their phones when they see a police car.
However, studies continually prove mobile phone use while driving is on the rise even as texting behind the wheel is illegal in 35 states, leaving federal and state regulators, law enforcement, and carriers searching for a resolution.
Pilot programs in Hartford, CT and Syracuse, NY that combined public educational campaigns with increased police presence and hefty fines were effective, but may not be viable long-term solutions.
Carriers have adapted to changing laws regarding mobile phone use so far, and they’ll likely hold off on entering the debate unless they have to. With the major decisions essentially out of their hands, they are likely to sit, wait, and adapt to whatever lawmakers decide.
In the meantime, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T all make mobile phone apps that aid drivers in diverting calls and texts while they’re operating a vehicle, but the industry is taking the stance that the responsibility ultimately lies with the consumer, who must activate the app before hitting the gas pedal.