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The Globe and Mail

Are 'digital drivers' the new drunk drivers?

Texting and driving in Toronto, Ont. on Wednesday, September 28, 2011.

Michelle Siu For The Globe and Mail/michelle siu The Globe and Mail

Digital warriors are the drunk drivers of the 21st century.

And while drunk driving now carries a massive social stigma and heavy criminal penalties, texting or chatting or even movie-watching while driving is a barely-punished commonplace, albeit a deadly one, according to America's National Transportation Safety Board.

With its call for a complete ban – all phones, all devices, all drivers – America's safety investigation agency ignited a firestorm. "We're not here to win a popularity contest," said the NTSB's blunt-speaking chairwoman Deborah Hersman. "No email, no text, no update, no call is worth a human life."

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Distracted drivers – including those using hands-free cell phones – killed more than 3,000 people in America's last year, according to the NTSB. If the usually-accepted ten-to-one population ratio applies, about 300 were killed in Canada.

"This is becoming the new DUI," said NTSB member Robert Sumwalt. "It's becoming epidemic."

And the carnage isn't just on the roads.

An engineer chatting on his cell phone slammed his commuter train into freight in California, killing 25 and injured scores more.

A pair of pilots overflew their destination by hundreds of kilometres while plotting vacation plans on their laptops in the cockpit. And a tugboat driver pulled a barge over a tourist boat in the Delaware River drowning two. But most of the thousands killed are on the roads, in ones and twos and fives.

YouTube has a grim selection of accidents where texting bus drivers are caught by in-bus surveillance cameras. Drivers texting on interstate highways at high speeds are easily spotted. Compliance rates of drivers pulling over and stopping to answer a call – required by law in dozens of state – are negligible.

More than 30 U.S. states already ban some or all handheld use while driving. But the laws are rarely enforced. More than two-thirds of drivers admit to cell phone use while driving and one in four tells pollsters that they text messages or type emails while driving.

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Nor is the nightmare of distracted drivers far from federal legislators now faced with the call for a national ban. The AAA (American Automobile Association) estimates that half – more than 100,000 drivers during rush hour – on Washington's infamous Beltway circling the nation's capital are using a held-held digital device every morning and evening.

The NTSB has no rule-making role but as the world's foremost accident investigation agency – better know for its presence at aircraft disasters – its blunt call for a complete ban carries weight.

Some groups, especially families of those killed and maimed by 'distracted drivers,' hailed the call.

But motorists' groups and the cell phone industry hedged while hordes of ordinary drivers interviewed by local radio and TV stations rejected a ban, even as some admitted they felt it was unsafe to chat while driving.

"We recommend a complete ban on texting for all states...and we also support a complete ban for cell phones for those under 18," said Brian Newbacher, Director of Public Affairs at AAA East Central. "We don't support a full ban for all drivers."

Perhaps it will take hands-free driving with the kind of smart, self-navigating cars being pioneered by Google to resolve what is becoming a bitter debate. Those vehicles are still years from widespread use.

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