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News Wrap: NTSB Urges Ban on Cell Phone Use While Driving

December 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
In other news Tuesday, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended a ban on using a cell phone while driving. It said the ban should apply to both hands-free and hand-held phones. Also, at least 28 people were killed in violence across Syria.
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HARI SREENIVASAN: Using a cell phone while driving in any form should be banned. That was the unanimous recommendation today of the National Transportation Safety Board. It said the ban should apply both to hands-free and handheld phones and other portable devices. That would exceed restrictions already imposed in many states.

We get more from Deborah Hersman, head of the NTSB.

Ms. Hersman, thanks for being with us.

Thirty-five states already have on the books some sort of ban against texting while driving. Why do your recommendations to ban all portable electronic devices go further than that?

DEBORAH HERSMAN, National Transportation Safety Board: Unfortunately, in ten years of investigations, we have seen that distractions cause accidents that result in fatalities, lost lives and injuries.

We have seen this in all modes of transportation, but in particular on our nation’s highways.

HARI SREENIVASAN: If the purpose is to decrease the amount of distracted driving, couldn’t the case be made that, when I change music stations on my car radio, when I eat, when I talk to another passenger, I’m equally as distracted?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Well, for sure, there are a lot of distractions that are facing today’s drivers.

But one of the things that we know is that all distractions are not equal. It’s the distractions that really require cognitive attention. It requires you to split your task. And human beings are really just not very good at that. What you do is, you would end up diverting attention away from the primary task at hand. And that’s driving.

It’s different when you have a passenger in the car with you. They can help you. They are aware of the traffic situation. They’re aware when things get complicated. They don’t expect you to respond when you get into a tight situation. But the person on the other end of the line really is not helpful when it comes to reacting and adapting to the environment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The NTSB has sort of recommendation authority, but it doesn’t have any enforcement authority. How, if states were to take your ban, would they possibly enforce something like this?

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Well, as you mentioned, there are 35 states that already have texting bans.

And so law enforcement authorities are actually faced with many difficult tasks when it comes to enforcing laws, detecting impaired drivers, whether they’re on drugs or whether they have been consuming alcohol, detecting drivers who are performing erratically.

It’s the things that you see when you’re out on the road, and you know that somebody is texting or they’re talking on the phone and they’re distracted. They’re not maintaining speed. They’re not maintaining their lane. They are distracted. Their driving is erratic or it’s not consistent.

Unfortunately, we see this too often. It doesn’t take long to have a catastrophic event or an accident. And, as we saw in our investigation today that the board reported so, there was a driver who was sending and receiving 11 texts in 11 minutes before the accident. He was in a work zone, and immediately traffic came to a stop. He was involved in a fatal accident. No call, no text, no post is worth a human life.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right, Deborah Hersman, head of the NTSB, thanks so much for your time.

DEBORAH HERSMAN: Thank you for having me.

HARI SREENIVASAN: The Federal Reserve offered a slightly improved assessment of the economy today. But the Central Bank made no move toward new efforts to boost growth. That sent Wall Street down late in the day. The Dow Jones industrial average lost 66 points to close below 11,955. The Nasdaq fell nearly 33 points to close at 2,579.

At least 28 people were killed in violence across Syria today. In one incident, anti-government activists said security opened fire on a funeral procession near the Turkish border. And a Syrian human rights group reported an American-born Syrian blogger, Razan Ghazzawi, has been charged with spreading false information and trying to weaken national sentiment.

In Belgium, a man armed with grenades and an assault rifle launched a deadly assault on holiday shoppers in the city of Liege. All told, four people died and more than 120 were wounded.

We have a report from Martin Geissler of Independent Television News.

MARTIN GEISSLER: Without any warning or obvious motive, 32-year-old Nordine Amrani created mayhem in this Belgian marketplace today. From a vantage point above the shoppers, he threw at least three grenades, then opened fire with automatic weapons, before turning a gun on himself.

Two teenagers and a pensioner were killed. A 2-year-old girl is fighting for her life in hospital tonight. Others are receiving treatment for their injuries.

Eyewitnesses spoke of the chaos that unfolded, describing scenes more reminiscent of a battlefield.

MAN: I saw all the glass breaking. I saw people running, screaming. I drive my car. Then I saw in the markets all the people lying down, bleeding between the glass.

MARTIN GEISSLER: Amrani was well-known to police here. They raided his home three years ago, tipped off he was growing drugs, but found a huge cache of weapons. He was sentenced to almost five years, but served less than two years in jail.

The major investigation already under way may in time reveal Amrani’s motive, but questions are already being asked as to how a man with his record could have developed the arsenal and the anger needed for an attack like this without the authorities becoming aware.

This evening, the authorities are working to reassure the city that the incident is over. That’s little comfort to the scores of wounded and the families of the three people who have lost their lives so far.

HARI SREENIVASAN: A separate attack erupted in a market in Florence, Italy. A gunman there killed two street vendors from Senegal and wounded three others, before killing himself. Italian news accounts identified him as a right-wing extremist who had taken part in racist rallies.

The man at the center of the child sex abuse scandal at Penn State university waived his preliminary hearing today. Jerry Sandusky’s decision means his case will proceed to a trial. He faces more than 50 counts of sexually abusing 10 boys across a 12-year-period. Sandusky has denied the allegations.

And defense lawyer Joseph Amendola said today, that has not changed.

JOE AMENDOLA, attorney for Jerry Sandusky: I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding. We are not in any way conceding guilt. In fact, Jerry is more adamant than ever in his innocence and in expressing his innocence at trial. Today’s decision was simply a tactical measure based upon an analysis of what was going to transpire.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Instead, the defense said it wanted to avoid having Sandusky’s accusers amplify their claims in open court.

A Pennsylvania state prosecutor said it was probably for the best.

MARC COSTANZO, Pennsylvania deputy attorney general: I haven’t spoken to the victims, but you have got to show and understand that you can’t forget the victims in this. And you want to have some feelings of compassion for the hurt that they have. And, you know, I think — I would imagine that they would be somewhat relieved not having to go out and testify and be cross-examined.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Sandusky’s next scheduled court appearance is in January. A trial date has not been set.

President Obama warned supporters today that his reelection is not going to be a slam dunk. He told an audience in Washington that he has worked to heal the economy, but Americans are still skeptical. Earlier, the president’s top campaign advisers said they expect Republicans will stage a drawn-out fight that will weaken their nominee.

Scientists’ search for the so-called God particle in physics may have taken a new turn. Two research teams at the CERN laboratory in Switzerland announced today they’re closing in on the so-called Higgs boson. The subatomic particle has long been thought to be a building block of the universe, but its existence has never been proven.

Those are some of the day’s major stories.