WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) — A driver in the next lane is moving his lips. Is he on a hands-free cell phone? Talking to someone in the car? To himself? Singing along to the radio?
If lawmakers follow the advice of a federal board, police officers will have to start figuring that out — somehow.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said this week that drivers should not only be barred from using hand-held cell phones, as they are in several states, but also from using hands-free devices. No more "Sorry, I'm stuck in traffic" calls, or virtually any other cell phone chatter behind the wheel.
Though no state has yet implemented such restrictive rules, the NTSB's recommendations carry weight that could place such language into future laws, or motivate the federal government to cut funding to states that don't follow suit.
Many of the men and women patrolling the nation's streets and highways wonder how they would sort the criminally chatty from the legally chatty.
"It would be almost impossible to determine if someone was talking on a phone or exercising their vocal cords," said Capt. Donald Melanson of the West Hartford, Conn., police department, which took part in a national pilot program aimed at cracking down on drivers' cell phone use. "That would be much more difficult to enforce, almost to the point where it would be impossible."
Officer Tom Nichols of the Port St. Lucie, Fla., police said a law written like the NTSB suggests would be difficult to enforce because so many variables would be at play.
"If you identify someone who has a hands-free set hooked up to their ear, that doesn't mean they are talking on the phone," he said. "They could be talking to a passenger. They could be talking to a child in the back. They could be singing."
Police could end up turning to technology for help. They might even end up with the cell phone equivalent of a radar speed gun.
Fred Mannering, a Purdue University civil engineering professor who is associate director of the Center for Road Safety, said that since all cell phones emit signals, a simple Bluetooth detection device could spot them.
Computers are already common in patrol cars, and Mannering said a relatively cheap add-on could fit them to track cell phone signals.
"It would be really easy for police to have a computer on board and pick up those signals," Mannering said, "but it is sort of Big Brother."
The NTSB's proposal, announced Tuesday as a unanimous recommendation of its five-member board, urges all states to impose total bans except for emergencies. It cited deadly crashes caused by distracted drivers across the country and noted that many studies have shown that hands-free cell phones are often as unsafe as hand-held devices.
The recommendation poses an astounding number of questions. What about chauffeurs and traveling salesmen who spend their entire day on the road? And roadside Amber Alert and Silver Alert notifications that implore drivers to call in if they spot a specific vehicle? What comes of phone lines dedicated to those "How's My Driving?" signs on trucks? How will you let someone know you're stuck in traffic?
Joe Schwieterman, a DePaul University professor who studies people's use of technology while traveling, said he can't envision a law so restrictive ever hitting the books because phone use has become commonplace for drivers. He called such an approach "draconian" and said that if such a law were passed, the public would despise it as "imperial overreach," then ignore it.
"It's a little like speeding laws where it will become just culturally acceptable to violate," he said. He said a no-call law would be followed only if violations carried stiff penalties like those for drunken driving.
Lewis Katz, a law professor at Case Western Reserve University, said a nationwide ban on using cell phones while driving would be wildly unpopular, and likely the target of legal challenges. But he believed such a law, and the methods police might use to enforce it, ultimately would be deemed as constitutional as seatbelt enforcement.
"I'm sure that it would be challenged on all sorts of constitutional grounds, including free speech," he said in a phone call from his car. "But it seems to me that it doesn't in any way infringe on any constitutional rights. It's a simple safety issue."
Whether the NTSB's recommendations will motivate decision-makers remains to be seen, but they have certainly caught their attention.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has made combating distracted driving the signature issue of his tenure, stopped short of an endorsement. His department is separate from the NTSB.
"My focus is going to be on preaching to people: Take personal responsibility. Put your cell phone and your texting device in the glove compartment when you get behind the wheel of a car," LaHood told reporters at a news conference in Chicago. "You can't drive safely when you have your hand on a cell phone and are trying to drive a 4,000 - 5,000 pound vehicle."
Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon, a Republican, said he was wary. His state is among those that have resisted passing laws restricting drivers' cell phone use.
Cannon said future technological advances may prove more effective than legislation at addressing driver distraction issues. As an example, he cited his new iPhone, which can make phone calls and send text messages via voice command.
"In these attempts to try and prevent every bad thing from happening," he said, "it's all too easy to overly restrict personal freedoms and individual rights and responsibilities."
Sheriff Ric Bradshaw, the top law enforcement official in Palm Beach County, Fla., said that if lawmakers take the NTSB's suggestions to heart, they should address all manner of distracted driving.
"I see women putting makeup on. I see a guy with an electric shaver. I see one woman with a newspaper. I see a guy with a dog in his hands. All of those are worse than texting," he said.
Monique Bond, a spokeswoman for the Illinois State Police, said training would be key to enforcing any ban. Officers are already looking for unbuckled seat belts and swerving drivers; they'd have to add to their mental checklists.
"It's something that is not insurmountable," Bond said. "How you're going to spot it, or how you're going to look for it — you have to acclimate the troops and acclimate the operations as to how to do this."
Chief Walter McNeil of Quincy, Fla., president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, said enforcement of a total ban would be difficult, but that distracted driving needs to be addressed.
"We certainly need to deal with the overall problem with distracted drivers, and getting some level of uniformity in how we enforce that would be helpful," he said.