WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The National Safety Council, which campaigned to get U.S. states to enforce seatbelt laws, is taking on mobile phones, saying on Sunday it was starting a campaign to ban all use of mobile phones while driving.
Even so-called hands-free devices should be banned, because studies show they do not make it any safer to talk on the telephone while driving, the group said.
"It's time to take the cell phone away," said Janet Froetscher, president and chief executive officer of the non-profit group.
"Studies show that driving while talking on a mobile phone is extremely dangerous and puts drivers at a four times greater risk of a crash," Froetscher said in a telephone interview.
Many states and Washington, D.C. have laws requiring the use of a hands-free device while driving and using a cellphone. But several recent studies have shown drivers are far more distracted when speaking on a mobile phone, even with a speaker or headset, than talking to a live passenger.
Last month Dave Strayer of the University of Utah and colleagues demonstrated that drivers using a hands-free device drifted out of their lanes and missed exits more frequently than drivers talking to a passenger.
Strayer's team has also shown that drivers using mobile telephones are as impaired as drivers who are legally drunk.
A study from the Harvard Center of Risk Analysis estimates that cellphone use while driving contributes to 6 percent of crashes. Froetscher's group says that translates to 636,000 crashes, 330,000 injuries and 2,600 deaths in the United States each year.
"When you're on a call, even if both hands are on the wheel, your head is in the call, and not on your driving," Froetscher said. "Unlike the passenger sitting next to you, the person on the other end of the call is oblivious to your driving conditions. The passenger provides another pair of eyes on the road."
Froetscher said her group would call governors and state legislators and ask them to ban all use of mobile phones while driving. She is confident the group can get states to change their laws.
"We have been through this before with seatbelts, with drunk driving. We do research. When the research demonstrates that something is very dangerous and we can save lives, we educate the public about it. We educate legislators about it," she said in a telephone interview.
John Ulczycki, a spokesman for the group, said it was behind the "Click it or Ticket" campaigns that have helped states enforce seatbelt laws.
Ulczycki said his group, which helps run court-ordered driver safety education courses, was also working with the wireless telephone industry. "Some people suggest and you might hear the argument that there might be a lot of things that are distracting in a vehicle and why are you picking on a cell phone?" he said.
He cited data from the International Association for the Wireless Telecommunications Industry that show there are 270 million wireless telephone subscribers in the United States, and more than 80 percent admit to using a mobile phone while driving.
"There are over 100 million people engaged in this behavior," Ulczycki said.
"There may be other things that people do in their cars that are more dangerous than talking on mobile phones. I think one of the most dangerous thing people do is turn around in their seats. But we don't have 100 million people doing that regularly for hours a day."
Editing by Eric Walsh