A federal safety agency, in an unprecedented move, is urging states to adopt bans on all non-emergency cellphone use by drivers.

The recommendation by the National Transportation Safety Board, an advisory and investigative agency, would apply to hands-free as well as hand-held devices. As The New York Times reports, that would go beyond any of the state restrictions adopted so far, which focus on hand-held phones and texting behind the wheel.

The NTSB said its decision stemmed from a decade of investigations into distracted driving accidents, as well as  concerns that powerful mobile devices are providing motorists with more temptations to look away from the road. Its recommendation, however, flies in the face of the current rush by automakers to pack more and more electronic information and entertainment features into their vehicles.

As FairWarning reported last month, automakers are running publicity campaigns urging drivers to avoid distractions such as texting behind the wheel — even as they seek to pump up sales by packing their new models with electronic features that encourage multi-tasking, including texting, behind the wheel.

Automakers have defended their actions by arguing that drivers are so intent on staying connected that telling them to turn off their cellphones or other devices is a lost cause. They say that by by giving motorists built-in connections that are simpler and less distracting than hand-held cellphones or GPS equipment, they are making the roads safer.

The NTSB, however, has come down squarely on the other side of the debate, contending that simply talking on a cellphone while driving, even with a wireless headset, is dangerous.

“It’s about cognitive distraction. It’s about not being engaged at the task at hand,” Deborah Hersman, head of the NTSB, told the Times. She added: “Lives are being lost in the blink of an eye. You can’t take it back, you can’t have a do over, and you can’t rewind.”

The agency’s recommendation, however, is non-binding and getting states to adopt it will be, at best, an uphill battle. For now, “It’s a political nonstarter,” said  Joe Simitian, a California state senator who succeeded in getting a law passed in 2006 that bans drivers from talking on a hand-held phone.


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