Published in: The Wall Street Journal
Date: December 19, 2011
By Anton Troianovski and Greg Bensinger
Watchdogs are pushing to ban cellphone calls by drivers--directly challenging how mobile devices are used--but carriers, caught between profits and safety, are keeping a low profile.
The National Transportation Safety Board's recommendation last week that states ban the use of cellphones and other devices while driving, even if drivers are using hands-free technology, catches carriers in the middle of those issues.
At a time when lucrative revenue from voice calling is in decline, the automobile is one of the last settings in which talking on the phone can be more practical than texting or emailing. Yet even though bans could threaten a big source of voice minutes, carriers are reluctant to get on the wrong side of a safety issue.
One-third of Americans fairly often or regularly talk on their cellphones when behind the wheel, the American Automobile Association says. They have plenty of opportunity. The latest Census figures found that more than three-quarters of Americans commute to work alone in their car, with the average commute taking 25 minutes.
The Department of Transportation has said research shows drivers are distracted by the mere fact of a phone conversation, which causes them to miss audio and visual cues that could help them avoid an accident.
Some industry groups disagree, arguing that if talking on the phone is a distraction, then so is talking to the person in the passenger seat. But CTIA, the group that represents wireless carriers and device manufacturers, isn't taking much of a stand to preserve the car as a last bastion of voice calling. It says it wouldn't oppose local or state bans on calling while driving.
That's a departure from the response five years ago when Verizon Wireless and Sprint Nextel Corp. staked out opposite sides in a California legislative battle over whether drivers should be required to use hands-free devices when talking on the phone. While Verizon supported the law, Sprint insisted that cellphones shouldn't be singled out as an illegal distraction on a menu of diversions that runs from listening to the radio to eating a cheeseburger.
These days, Sprint says it fully supports banning drivers from texting and emailing, and says it wouldn't oppose legislation banning all calls while driving, even the hands-free kind. A CTIA spokesman, John Walls, said the association had opposed hands-free legislation but in recent years changed its position.
"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," Mr. Walls said.
Even when Alaska State Rep. Mike Doogan, a Democrat, two years ago pushed a bill that would have banned all cellphone use by drivers, it was lobbyists for truckers-- not for phone companies-- that put up the biggest fight, Mr. Doogan recalls.
"The telecommunications industry itself has been conspicuously quiet on this," said Mr. Doogan, whose bill never passed.
The issue is largely academic at this point. The NTSB doesn't have Congress or the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's authority to impose new rules. While some states ban even hands-free communications behind the wheel for some people, such as school-bus drivers and novices, no state has imposed such a ban for all drivers. The District of Columbia and 35 states prohibit texting while driving.
The Governors Highway Safety Association said it was difficult to gauge the likelihood that any states would follow through with a full ban of mobile-phone use in vehicles.
"It would be very difficult to enforce, just as the texting ban is difficult to enforce," said Barbara Harsha, the executive director of the association. She said it is easy to conceal mobile-phone use in vehicles, pointing to a phenomenon known as cop drop, where texters drop their device into their laps when they see the police.
CTIA and the Consumer Electronics Association both say last week's NTSB move came as a surprise. They also say they weren't involved in the board's investigation of a fatal accident involving texting while driving in Gray Summit, Mo., that precipitated the NTSB's recommendation for a calling ban.
For wireless retailers, sales of hands-free equipment and headsets have accounted for 1.5% of all hardware revenues this year, according to retail-software maker iQmetrix.
For the technology industry, hands-free legislation has helped spur sales of equipment for hands-free calling. Such devices generated some $230 million in sales in the U.S. in the first 11 months of the year, according to NPD Group-- real money, though a drop in the bucket for companies like Verizon Wireless. For wireless retailers, sales of hands-free equipment and headsets have accounted for 1.5% of all hardware revenues this year, according to retail-software maker iQmetrix.
Kitty O'Leary, an NTSB member from 2006 to 2009, says she saw a profit motive in the industry's stance on distracted driving.
"The industry has been promotive of their products and the new technology-- its focus hasn't really been on safety," Ms. O'Leary said. Industry groups and companies say the safety of their customers is their top priority.
An industry group affiliated with the giant Consumer Electronics Association is already contacting legislatures in California, New York, and the District of Columbia to encourage them not to follow the NTSB's recommendation, its general counsel said in an interview.
The group, the Distracted Driving Safety Alliance, argues that bans on texting while driving and calling without a hands-free device make sense, said General Counsel Marc-Anthony Signorino. But he said state legislators shouldn't go so far as to ban all calling while driving, in part because of how much people rely on cellphone conversations.
-Write to Anton Troianovski at email@example.com and Greg Bensinger at firstname.lastname@example.org