Widespread support for a complete ban on cell phone use by commercial truck and bus drivers – both handheld and hands free – is rapidly increasing, following an accident follow-up report issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) last week urging the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) to speed up efforts to put such a ban in place.

The NTSB’s recommendation follows its investigation of a March 2010 crash that killed 11 people, which found the tractor-trailer driver cited for causing the accident used his cell phone 69 times in the 24 hours prior to the crash, with four calls made in the minutes leading up to the fatal collision.

“The NTSB determines that the probable cause of this accident was the truck driver’s failure to maintain control of the truck-tractor combination vehicle because he was distracted by use of his cellular telephone,” the group said in its report, adding that poorly designed median barrier and lack of adequate guidance to the states in the form of high-performance median barrier warrants contributed to the severity of the crash.

Though FMCSA already proposed placing such a ban on cell phone use by both commercial truck and bus drivers last December, many feel that effort is moving too slowly.

The National Safety Council (NSC) is one group strongly urging faster adoption of the NTSB’s proposed ban on cell phone use by commercial vehicle drivers, noting that its research indicates that 23% of all crashes each year involve cell phone use.

“We strongly support the NTSB recommendation for a total ban,” said Janet Froetscher, NSC president and CEO, in a statement. “We called for a national ban on all cell phone use among drivers in 2009, recognizing that research shows no safety benefit from hands-free devices. The distraction to the brain from cell phone use can cause drivers to miss seeing up to 50% of their driving environment.”

Yet the trucking community is of two minds when it comes to enacting such a wide-reaching ban. For example, while the American Trucking Assns. believes handheld cell phone use, either for talking or texting, should be banned for all motorists, not just commercial drivers, it believes hands-free cell phone devices should not be included.

“This crash, like all truck-involved crashes, is a tragedy and we’re hopeful that NTSB’s recommendations will lead to safer highways for all motorists, including professional truck drivers,” noted Bill Graves, ATA’s president & CEO, in a statement.

However, he stressed that ATA “does not call for a prohibition on hands-free cell phone use because the most compelling and reliable research in the area shows that hands-free use does not elevate crash risk and perhaps even reduces it.”

Yet, according to the NTSB report, an equal amount of “cognitive distraction” is created by cell phone use when behind the wheel regardless of whether it’s a handheld or hands-free device – shifting the operator’s attention from the task of driving and altering their behavior.

“Unfortunately people still don’t think they are doing anything wrong when they talk on the phone,” David Kelly, former acting administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and now president of consulting firm Storm King Strategies, told Fleet Owner. “How many more tragedies do we have to endure before we simply put down the phone and drive?”

Indeed, a three-year study concluded by University of Utah psychologists in 2006 showed that any motorist who talked on handheld or hands-free cellular phones while operating a vehicle – not just truck drivers – were found to be as impaired as drunken drivers.

“That’s why drivers need to focus their attention on driving and stop talking,” Kelly pointed out. “A ban on phone conversations while driving any motor vehicle is a practical way to make everyone safer on the roads.”