In the race between a fast-spreading and potentially hazardous technology and government attempts to regulate it, the regulators come in a distant second.

According to The Washington Post, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated its first car crash involving a wireless electronic device in 2002, when a woman talking on her cellphone crashed and killed five people in the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

Since then, there have been tentative steps to regulate the distractions posed by drivers talking or texting on their cells: 35 states, including Maine, and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving; nine states and D.C. ban hand-held devices while driving altogether; and 30 states ban cellphone use by younger drivers.

Last year, more than 3,000 deaths in the United States were blamed on distracted drivers, the usual distraction being a cellphone. The problem is not as grave as drunken driving with more than 10,000 fatalities a year, but it is growing and is likely to get worse because of generational differences.

A government study showed that one in six drivers sends text messages while driving, while nearly half of drivers under 25 do.

For a while, it looked as if technology might solve the problem that it created, but studies showed that hands-free devices were almost as dangerous as hand-held devices.

The New York Times reports that while polls show people continue to use their devices while driving, “they also widely consider such behavior to be extremely dangerous.”

Faced with this blunt fact of human nature, the National Transportation Safety Board this week recommended a total ban on driver use of all portable electronic devices. The NTSB has no regulatory authority, but its recommendations carry considerable weight with the states.

The galvanizing event behind the board’s decision to recommend a complete ban was an August 2010 chain collision that killed the 19-year-old driver of a pickup truck and a 15-year-old passenger and injured 38 others in the two school buses that plowed into him.

That accident also showed the limits of legislation. Missouri, where the crash occurred, already had a law banning drivers under 21 from texting while driving.

The pickup driver had sent or received 11 text messages in the 11 minutes leading up to the crash.

Meanwhile, on what used to be just a phone, people cannot only talk and text, but also play games, surf the Web, check Facebook, watch movies and TV, use Skype — in other words, endlessly distract themselves.

Drivers, especially the younger ones, are coming to think of these devices as a right and would find any attempts at effective enforcement overly intrusive. And once again, the regulators come in second.

Editorial by Dale McFeatters, Scripps Howard News Service

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