The group's president and chief executive, Janet Froetscher, likened talking on cell phones to drunken driving, saying cell phone use increases the risk of a crash fourfold.
"When our friends have been drinking, we take the car keys away. It's time to take the cell phone away," Froetscher said in interview.
No state currently bans all cell phone use while driving. Six states - California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Utah and Washington - and the District of Columbia ban the use of hand-held cell phones behind the wheel, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. Also, 17 states and the district restrict or ban cell phone use by novice drivers.
Council officials acknowledged a total ban could take years.
"Public awareness and the laws haven't caught up with what the scientists are telling us," Froetscher said. "There is no dispute that driving while talking on your cell phone, or texting while driving, is dangerous."
Froetscher said the council examined more than 50 scientific studies before reaching its decision. One was a study by the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis that estimates 6 percent of vehicle crashes, causing about 2,600 deaths and 12,000 serious injuries a year, are attributable to cell phone use. Hands-free cell phones are just as risky as hand held phones, she added.
"It's not just what you're doing with your hands - it's that your head is in the conversation and so your eyes are not on the road," Froetscher said.
John Walls, vice president of CTIA-The Wireless Association, a cell phone trade group, objected to a complete ban. He said there are many instances where the ability to make a phone call while driving helps protect safety.
"We think that you can sensibly and safely use a cell phone to make a brief call," Walls said.
What makes cell phone use distinct from other risky driving behaviors, Froetscher said, is the magnitude - there are 270 million cell phone users in the U.S. and 80 percent of them talk on the phone while driving.
Froetscher said the council is the first major national safety group to call for a total cell phone ban for drivers. The National Transportation Safety Board has been urging states since 2003 to ban the use of cell phones or any wireless device by inexperienced drivers who have learner's permits or intermediate licenses. Last year, at least 23 states considered some form of legislation to restrict the use of cell phones or wireless devices, according to the board.
Council officials said they will press Congress to address the issue when it takes up a highway construction bill this year, possibly by offering incentives to states that enact cell phone laws.
The Governors Highway Safety Association agreed that cell phone use while driving is dangerous, but said it would be difficult to enforce a ban. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which is funded by auto insurers, said banning all cell phone use "makes sense based on the research," but agreed that enforcement will be difficult.