Cell phones distracting pilots as well as drivers

NTSB Warns Pilots Device Distraction Could Lead To Mid-Air Collisions

Distractions aren't just for drivers. The National Transportation Safety Board issued a warning to pilots last week that said the presence of technology, such as cell phones and tablets, in the cockpit could lead to mid-air collisions.

"The presence of technology has introduced challenges to the see-and-avoid concept," the independent federal agency wrote in a safety alert. "Aviation applications on portable electronic devices ... while useful, can lead to more head-down time, limiting a pilot's ability to see other aircraft."

When pilots operate under visual flight rules, their primary means of avoiding other aircraft is by maintaining a visual lookout and scanning surrounding airspace. Even when on-board traffic advisory systems are available, they're not a substitute for simply looking outside, the NTSB said.

The number of general-aviation accidents declined from 1,539 in 2012 to 1,297 in 2013, according to the latest available figures. But the agency is nonetheless concerned about the growing influence in the cockpit.

No specific statistics are kept on the number of accidents caused by technological distractions like cell phones, but this type of accident first received attention last May, when a pilot crashed in Watkins, CO. Amritpal Singh likely lost control of the plane while taking selfies with his cell phone, the NTSB ruled.

Of course, such problems are already known on the nation's highways. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says 3,154 motorists were killed in vehicle crashes caused by distracted driving in 2013 and that 424,000 were injured.

Distracted-driving deaths are likely underestimated, says the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. In a study of teen drivers, the organization found that distractions were a factor in 58 percent of teen driving accidents, while federal data showed distractions only contributed to 14 percent of teen accidents.

The study "provides indisputable evidence that teen drivers are distracted in a much greater percentage of crashes than we previously realized," said Peter Kissinger, president and CEO of the Foundation for Traffic Safety.

At any given daylight moment, approximately 660,000 American drivers are using their cell phones or electronic devices while driving a car, a number that has held steady over the past five years, according to NHTSA.

For pilots, the distraction issue is not a simple one. Information relevant to the flight, such as approach plates, charts for navigation, and maps are now available on tablets and other electronic devices. They have a practical use in the cockpit. But as the Colorado accident showed, when left to excess, the distractions caused by technology in the cockpit can be just as deadly as they are on the road.

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