In an effort to curb the number of fatal car crashes involving teens, the National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that novice drivers be prohibited from using their cell phones while learning how to drive.
Car accidents remain the leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 20, according to the NTSB. The federal agency investigates catastrophic accidents, finds probable cause and then makes recommendations to the government.
More than 120 young people die every week in car crashes in the U.S., the agency reports.
"We know that teens are overrepresented in car crashes, especially fatal ones, and that means a lot more of them are dying than should be, given the number of young drivers who are out there," said Judie Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety. "It's so sad when a teenager dies, because their death could have been prevented."
The federal cell-phone ban was included in the NTSB's recommendations on its "Most Wanted List" of transportation safety improvements, released on Tuesday.
"When you are in the business of learning how to drive, it's serious," NTSB acting chairman Mark Rosenker said. "When you're in that phase, you will never be able to focus your full attention if you're being distracted by other things, and cell phones are clearly a very big distraction for young people today."
"We know from talking with young people that cell phones do represent a pretty serious risk in terms of distracted driving, and kids themselves have told us it's something they are concerned about," said Stephen Wallace, chairman and CEO of Students Against Destructive Decisions.
At present, 11 states already carry some form of restriction (either a full or partial ban) prohibiting cell-phone use while a teen is learning how to drive. (Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Washington, D.C., have banned driving while talking on a handheld cell phone, regardless of age.) The agency issued its recommendation to the 39 states that have no restrictions as of yet.
Each state legislature determines its own driving rules and regulations, and it is up to those bodies to decide whether to take the proposal and make it into law. If passed, the restriction would only apply to new drivers who are carrying either a learner's permit (covering the first three to nine months, depending on the state) or an intermediate license (six to 12 months following a learner's permit). Once drivers obtained unrestricted licenses after that time period, they would be able to chat on their cell phones.
Most states now have graduated driver's licensing programs, which gradually ease young beginning drivers into a driving environment and provide them with adequate supervision. As of December 2004, however, according to a study by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, no state had all the elements the organization said it believes should be present in a GDL program, such as nighttime restrictions and limits on the number of teens that can accompany a teen driver without supervision.
The NTSB's Rosenker stresses that teen drivers lack experience and can only gain it with time.
"We know for a fact that when you are learning a new task, you cannot be distracted," Rosenker said. "Learning how to drive is a pretty big thing for young people, and you need to do that with your full attention. If you're not fully dedicated to the task at hand, which is learning how to maintain control of the vehicle, you run a very high risk of getting into an accident."
"The most important thing a beginning driver needs to know is that it's a very dangerous environment out there, and although you think you're in control, sometimes you're not," Stone added. "You certainly can't control what other people do, so it's up to you to take the precautions you can."