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NTSB Urges States to Ban Cell Phone Use by Drivers

12/15/2011

On Tuesday, December 13, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recommended that States ban the nonemergency use of all cellular telephones and other “portable electronic devices” (PEDs) by drivers of motor vehicles. This would include hands-free cell phone operation and all text messaging while mobile. While this NTSB recommendation has been the lead story in national media, the “distracted driving” issue has been receiving serious attention for several years. A number of states and municipalities have prohibited texting and handheld cellular telephone use by all or some drivers, though none has gone so far as to outlaw all hands-free cell phone use. To avoid unintended consequences to Amateur Radio operation, the ARRL has been closely involved with this issue for several years. The full text of the NTSB report is not yet available, and it is not yet known whether the broad term “portable electronic devices” might be construed as including all or some Amateur Radio equipment.

On January 30, 2009, the Executive Committee of the ARRL Board of Directors approved and released an ARRL position paper on Mobile Amateur Radio Operation. In that paper, the ARRL encourages licensees to conduct Amateur Radio communications from motor vehicles in a manner that does not detract from the safe and attentive operation of a motor vehicle at all times, but points out that mobile two-way radio equipment has been in use for at least 70 years and is quite dissimilar from full-duplex cell phones.

“Over the past several years, ARRL Section Managers, State Government Liaisons and ARRL members have monitored hundreds of state legislative bills on this topic,” ARRL Regulatory Information Manager Dan Henderson, N1ND, explained. “While ARRL Headquarters is an information resource, it is the hard work of state and local level ARRL leadership that has been the key in our efforts to protect Amateur Radio mobile operation.”

The wording of state legislation -- and specifically the definition of the devices that are being regulated -- determines what response is appropriate from the Amateur Radio community. The fact that a proposed state bill does not include a specific exemption for Amateur Radio doesn’t necessarily mean the bill would prohibit Amateur Radio mobile operation. A well-crafted bill that narrowly defines “wireless mobile devices” or “wireless communications devices,” for example, limiting those definitions cellular telephones and text messaging devices, might not need a specific exemption in order to protect Amateur Radio operation. In cases where a bill must be amended in order to add an Amateur Radio exemption, the proposed exemption language is critical. Some mobile cellular legislation, for example, would allow use of Amateur Radio while mobile only in an emergency, and thus routine amateur communications would still be precluded, and amateurs would be unlikely to install equipment that would be needed in an emergency.

The NTSB recommends that all states prohibit the use of cell phones and PEDs by all drivers of motor vehicles. The NTSB does not have the authority to impose such regulations itself, but the recommendation is likely to inspire additional legislative proposals. When state legislatures convene after January 1, the State Government Liaisons (SGLs), Section Managers and other volunteers in the ARRL Field Organization must monitor bills introduced into the various state legislatures for any potential problems. Introduction of such state legislation has been the norm for several years now; in fact, bills have been “prefiled” prior to the next legislative session in several states.

When a potential bill is sent to the ARRL, Regulatory Branch staff and legal experts review it to determine the potential impact on the Amateur Radio Service. If the definition of the prohibited activity clearly does not include Amateur Radio communications, it may be best to avoid raising the issue.

In August 2009, the ARRL received correspondence from the National Safety Council, stating that there is no evidence of significant risk by mobile Amateur Radio or other two-way mobile radio usage, and that until there are peer-reviewed studies showing that there is a safety hazard, the NSC does not support legislative bans on mobile Amateur Radio communications. The NSC has applauded the NTSB recommendations, citing evidence that “cognitive distraction” occurs, even when hands-free devices are used.

The ARRL’s position is set out in the Mobile Amateur Radio Policy Statement, and includes suggested legislative language for use where necessary. SGLs and volunteers are encouraged to use the basics of the statement when working with state legislators.

CTIA, the international association for the wireless telecommunications industry, has released a statement reiterating its support for a ban on texting while driving: “As far as talking on wireless devices while driving, we defer to state and local lawmakers and their constituents as to what they believe are the most appropriate laws where they live.”

“The bottom line,” Henderson concluded, “is that we all support safe driving. Amateurs are encouraged to pay full time and attention to attentive driving while behind the wheel, and to avoid any and all distractions.”



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