Truck and Bus Drivers Can’t Use Hand Held Cell Phones While Driving

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On Jan. 3, 2012, a final rule took effect from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that banned the use of hand-held cell phones by commercial motor vehicle drivers on interstates.

The ban, which covers both truck and bus drivers, will cover about four million CMV drivers, according to FMCSA.  The ban is “a giant leap for safety,” said Anne Ferro, FMCSA administrator. “It’s just too dangerous for drivers to use a hand-held cell phone while operating a commercial vehicle.”

The rule’s enforcement creates penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense, and drivers can be disqualified from driving a CMV for multiple offenses. A commercial driver’s license can be suspended by states if a driver has after two or more serious traffic violations, including any cell phone law violations.

The ban also holds commercial truck and bus companies accountable, and imposes a maximum penalty of $11,000 for companies whose drivers violate the ban on company time.

The final rule (.pdf file) says CMV drivers may use hand-held cell phones only in particular circumstances while driving, such as calling the police or emergency services. Phones may be used if drivers are safely pulled over, but not when they are stopped at a traffic light or in a traffic delay.

Most feedback during the rule’s public commenting period was supportive of the phone ban. Some groups questioned the ban’s need, while others wanted to know why the ban would not include hands-free devices.

Some argued the ban would “impede business” and require additional stops by the driver.  The Grain Valley, MO-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association asked why hand-held cell phones would be banned while other electronics, such as fleet management devices, would not. It noted there were many other distractions a driver must handle as well.

At the same time, Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety called for a complete ban on cell phone use by CMV drivers. Its spokesman, Vice President and General Counsel Henry Jasny, noted the same raft of distractions that OOIDA brought up, but concluded that we don’t need to add to them by allowing either hands-free or hand-held conversations.

In deciding on the ban, FMCSA and PHMSA analyzed distracted driving research. According to the agencies, the results of “naturalistic” driver distraction studies were the most persuasive in deciding on the ban. However, safety groups like the National Safety Council pronounced that naturalistic studies do not capture the full scope of distracted driving behaviors, and don’t fully represent the driving public.

Naturalistic studies combine sensors and multiple cameras to record study participants’ daily driving activities. The recordings help determine what behaviors or external factors cause “safety-critical events.” These can be a crash or near crash, according to researcher Richard Hanowski, director for the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, who was involved with on two naturalistic VTTI studies noted in FMCSA and PHMSA’s ban.

The studies, one in 2009 and the other in 2010, broke down cell phone use while driving into “subtasks.” The studies determined that reaching for the cell phone and dialing increased safety risk, said Hanowski.

The studies also discovered that hands-free devices did not significantly increase the odds of being in a safety-critical event. The 2009 study said further research is needed to gauge the effect of hands-free devices on cognitive distraction. Cognitive distraction is the degree to which an activity takes a driver’s focus away from the road.

A National Safety Council spokesman, John Ulczycki, said naturalistic driver distraction studies, such as the VTTI’s, have limitations. He said the studies don’t measure cognitive distraction for multiple reasons, one of which is that recording a driver’s face without audio can’t determine when drivers may be using hands-free or embedded devices.

Ulczycki said FMCSA and PHMSA should have taken all driver distraction research findings into account for its decision. For public policy, he said, the NSC believes decision-makers need to consult scientific evidence from all credible sources, as all research methods have strengths and weaknesses, and no one method or source should solely determine public policy.

Ulczycki cited an NSC white paper (.pdf file) on distracted driving, which looked at all available literature and determined the consensus was that a driver’s risk of crashing while using a hands-free phone is about four times as great while driving as when not using a phone.

AHAS’ Jasny said he believes the literature on distracted driving shows a link between hand-held cell phone use and cognitive distraction. He called it common sense that when talking on the phone, especially in an intense conversation, the driver gets tunnel vision and is not paying attention to everything going on in front of him.