DOT Distracted Driving Rule Bans Hand-Held Phone use by Commercial Drivers, but Allows Hands-Free Cell Phones

Another half-step on distracted driving or progress?

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood today announced a final rule prohibiting interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held phones while operating their vehicles in DOT’s latest distracted driving action.  Drivers who violate the regulation face federal civil penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense and disqualification from operating a commercial motor vehicle for multiple offenses. States will also suspend a driver’s commercial driver’s license (CDL) after two or more serious traffic violations.

Almost 5,500 people died and half a million were injured in crashes involving a distracted driver in 2009. Distraction-related fatalities represented 16% of overall traffic fatalities in 2009, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) research.

The joint rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is the latest action by the U.S. Department of Transportation to end distracted driving.

The DOT rule falls far short of a recommendation in September from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) to ban the use of all cell phones – hand-held or hands-free – by commercial drivers except in emergencies. NTSB made the recommendation after a horrific crash between an 18-wheeler and a van killed 11 people. The driver of the larger truck made four calls in the minutes leading up to the crash, making the last call at the time of the accident. (See NTSB Wants Cell Phone Ban for Commercial Drivers)

“When drivers of large trucks, buses and hazardous materials take their eyes off the road for even a few seconds, the outcome can be deadly,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “I hope that this rule will save lives by helping commercial drivers stay laser-focused on safety at all times while behind the wheel.”

FMCSA research shows that using a hand-held cell phone while driving requires a commercial driver to take several risky steps beyond what is required for using a hands-free mobile phone, including searching and reaching for the phone. Commercial drivers reaching for an object, such as a cell phone, are three times more likely to be involved in a crash or other safety-critical event. Dialing a hand-held cell phone makes it six times more likely that commercial drivers will be involved in a crash or other safety-critical event.

In September 2010, FMCSA issued a regulation banning text messaging while operating a commercial truck or bus and PHMSA followed with a companion regulation in February 2011, banning texting by intrastate hazardous materials drivers.

Many of the largest truck and bus companies, such as UPS, Covenant Transport, Wal-Mart, Peter Pan and Greyhound already have company policies in place banning their drivers from using hand-held phones. However, the use of hands-free phones is commonplace not only by truck drivers, but all drivers on U.S. roads.

About Ken Zino

Ken Zino is an auto industry veteran with global experience in print, broadcast and electronic media. He has auto testing, marketing, public relations and communications expertise garnered while working in Asia, Europe and the U.S.
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