Ten years from now, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board hopes she's not sitting in another symposium like the one convened Tuesday.
Deborah Hersman said it shouldn't take much longer for people to act on what experts know now – that distracted driving is causing carnage on American roads.
On Tuesday, the NTSB restated its call for a ban on drivers using all portable electronic devices, including hands-free use of mobile devices, during the forum on distracted driving in Washington D.C.
The call for a ban on both hand-held and hands-free devices is a step above the hand-held ban that U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has recommended. LaHood has said the issue with hands-free devices needs more research.
"It's clear that we don't need another decade of investigations and recommendations," said Hersman, noting that 5,474 people were killed in 2009 in crashes caused by distractions including cell-phone use.
Another NTSB board member, Robert Sumwalt, said that distracted driving had risen to "epidemic" levels, and cited a recent study that concluded both hand-held and hands-free mobile usage increases the chance of a crash by a factor of four.
"There is no difference between hand-helds and hands-free," he said. "That's a point that I think is huge."
The NTSB board members urged companies making the technology to take added responsibility for how their products affect driver attention and potentially contribute to accidents.
In pointed remarks, Hersman said, "if the technology producers focused more on what is safe than what sells, we'd see highway fatalities go down."
Michael Cammisa, the director of safety for the Association of Global Automakers, said that auto manufacturers and original equipment suppliers were already heeding that warning.
"Our members take a measured approach when designing a vehicle and deciding what features to include," he said. "When integrating the convenience features demanded by today's consumers, factors such as safety, usability and comprehension are all considered."
Thirty-five states already have a ban in place on text messaging while driving. Nine states ban the use of hand-held mobile devices, but no state has prohibited the use of hands-free devices.
The NTSB has no rule-making authority, but its recommendations are passed along to Congress and the White House.
Automakers are very much against such a severe curtailment of electronic devices like iPhones and Blackberries. Virtually all automakers have developed, or are developing, systems meant to enable drivers to do the following hands-free and by voice command: make phone calls, access music libraries, have texts and even Facebook updates and Twitter tweets read aloud in the car.
Automakers find that people will pay thousands of dollars per car on systems that keep them connected while they drive. And they argue that perfecting such systems is safer in the long run than banning the use of smartphones in cars because drivers will resort to using them anyway in more distracting ways.