WASHINGTON -- Texting, emailing or talking on a cellphone while driving is simply too dangerous to be allowed, federal safety investigators declared Tuesday, urging all states to impose total bans except for emergencies.
Inspired by recent deadly crashes -- including one in which a teenager sent or received 11 text messages in 11 minutes before an accident -- the recommendation would apply even to hands-free devices, a much stricter rule than any current state law.
The unanimous recommendation by the five-member National Transportation Safety Board would make an exception for devices deemed to aid driver safety, such as GPS systems.
A group representing state highway safety offices called the recommendation "a game-changer."
"States aren't ready to support a total ban yet, but this may start the discussion," said Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association.
NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman acknowledged that the recommendation would be unpopular with many people, and that complying would involve changing what has become ingrained behavior for many Americans.
Last year, the South Carolina House of Representatives voted to outlaw texting while driving, but the Senate did not follow suit.
The Clemson City Council in 2010 became the first in the state to impose a municipal ban on texting behind the wheel. Clemson University researchers found that when drivers were texting, at least some part of the vehicle was out of its lane 10 percent of the time.
In Mount Pleasant, the council's Police, Legal and Judicial Committee voted 3-1 last year to ban texting while driving, but the Town Council later voted against the measure. The practicality of enforcing such a town law was debated, and the council decided to wait to see if the General Assembly acted on the issue.
While the NTSB doesn't have the power to impose restrictions, its recommendations carry significant weight with federal regulators and lawmakers. Another recommendation issued Tuesday urges states to aggressively enforce current bans on text messaging and the use of cellphones and other portable electronic devices while driving.
"We're not here to win a popularity contest," Hersman said. "No email, no text, no update, no call is worth a human life."
Currently, 35 states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving, and nine states and D.C. bar hand-held cellphone use. Thirty states ban all cellphone use for beginning drivers. But enforcement is generally not a high priority, and no states ban the use of hands-free devices for all drivers.
A total cellphone ban would be the hardest to accept for many people.
Leila Noelliste, 26, a Chicago blogger and business owner, said being able to talk on the cellphone "when I'm running around town" is important to self-employed people like herself.
"I don't think they should ban cellphones because I don't think you're really distracted when you're talking, it's when you're texting," she said. When you're driving and talking, "your eyes are still on the road."
The immediate impetus for the recommendation of state bans was a deadly highway pileup near Gray Summit, Mo., last year in which a 19-year-old pickup driver sent and received 11 texts in 11 minutes just before the accident.