NTSB recommends ban on cell phone use by bus drivers

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In a final report on a motor coach accident in Virginia, the National Transportation Safety Board Tuesday, Nov. 21, urged the federal and state governments to prohibit motor coach and school bus drivers from using cell phones while driving those vehicles, except in emergencies. “Professional drivers who have dozens of passengers’ lives entrusted to them should devote their full attention to their task,” NTSB Chairman Mark V. Rosenker said. “What we saw in this accident is appalling and could have resulted in great tragedy.”

The recommendations are contained in the board’s report on a non-fatal bus accident that occurred in November 2004 on the George Washington Parkway in Alexandria, Va. A 12-foot-high motor coach was traveling in the right lane of the parkway when it struck a low bridge; there were signs warning of the 10-foot, 2-inch clearance for that lane and the 13-foot, 4-inch clearance for the left lane. During the impact, the roof of the bus was destroyed and 11 students were injured, one of them seriously.

The bus driver had been talking on a hands-free cell phone at the time of the accident, and he said that he saw neither the warning signs nor the bridge itself before the impact. The safety board concluded that the driver’s cognitive distraction resulting from his use of a hands-free cell phone caused the accident. The use of either a hand-held or hands-free cellular telephone while driving can impair the performance of even a commercial driver’s license holder, such as the driver in this accident, the board said.

“Payment for transportation services creates an implicit contract between the passenger and the carrier that the carrier will transport the passenger safely and not allow the vehicle operator to take unnecessary risks,” the board stated in its report. “Consequently, these drivers have a special obligation to provide the safest driving environment possible for the passengers in their care.”

The safety board recommended that the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the 50 states and District of Columbia prohibit CDL holders with a passenger-carrying or school bus endorsement from using cell phones while driving those vehicles, except in emergencies. The board also recommended that the bus associations develop similar formal policies for their members.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the Highway Loss Data Institute website, California, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey and the District of Columbia currently ban all drivers, not just bus drivers, from driving while talking on a hand-held cellular phone.

Using a cell phone while driving a school bus is illegal in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas and the District of Columbia; California is the only state to extend that law to transit bus drivers. Various cities in other states also have restricted cell phone use by drivers, including Chicago, Detroit and Santa Fe, N.M.

In its report, the NTSB also found that the low vertical clearance of the bridge, which does not meet current standards, contributed to the accident.