Jeff Crissey

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Updated Sep 28, 2021

Jeff1I’m sorry, I can’t come to the phone right now…

Latest proposal from FMCSA targets use of handheld communication devices

Just in time to ramp up last-minute holiday sales of Bluetooth-enabled devices and other hands-free communication solutions, on Dec. 17 the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration announced a notice of proposed rulemaking that would prohibit the use of handheld mobile telephones by drivers of commercial motor vehicles engaged in interstate commerce.

The cost for drivers in violation of the restrictions would be stiff: civil penalties up to $2,750 for each offense and CDL disqualifications of 60 days for two-time offenders and 120 days for three-time offenders within a three-year window. Fleets aren’t off the hook either: the NPRM proposes fines up to $11,000 for carriers that allow drivers to use handheld mobile devices while operating in interstate commerce.

“Every time a commercial truck or bus driver takes his or her eyes off the road to use a cell phone, even for a few seconds, the driver places everyone around them at risk,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “This proposed rule will go a long way toward keeping a driver’s full attention focused on the road.”

DOT breaks distracted driving into four categories: visual (taking your eyes off the road), manual (taking your hands off the wheel), cognitive (taking your mind off what you’re doing) and auditory (listening to someone talking). In the proposed rule, FMCSA argues that operating a handheld phone while operating a commercial motor vehicle requires a driver to participate in all four types of distraction. According to research it contracted from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and published in October 2009, the odds of a commercial vehicle driver being involved in a crash or safety-critical event are 3.1 times higher when reaching for an object and 5.9 times higher while the driver is dialing a phone. By comparison, texting while driving increases the odds 23.2 times. FMCSA banned that practice last September.

Would a ban on mobile phones altogether be yet another barrier for new entrants to the market?

According to the same study, simply talking on a phone doesn’t raise the odds of a crash or safety-critical event. As such, FMCSA is recommending that hands-free mobile phones be allowed “as long as it does not require the driver to reach for, dial, or hold a mobile telephone.”

My personal car is equipped with hands-free and voice dialing features, and there’s no question I feel safer going that route to make and receive phone calls than I would fishing around in my pocket or console for a ringing phone. And aside from trying to hear and be heard over my kids squawking in the back seat, it really is the better (and safer) of the two alternatives.

During the comment 60-day comment period that began Dec. 21 when the NPRM was published in the Federal Register however, FMCSA is also soliciting comments on whether to propose an outright ban on mobile phone use – handheld or hands-free – as has been recommended by FMCSA’s own Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee as well as the National Transportation Safety Board for passenger-carrying CMVs.

If FMCSA bans mobile phone devices altogether, is it over-stepping its bounds? Truck drivers are already away from their families for hours, days or weeks at a time. If we tell them that in order for them to talk to a loved one they’ll have to pull over – keeping in mind that a new hours-of-service rule will further restrict their drive time – would a ban on mobile phones altogether be yet another barrier for new entrants to the market?

When his term ends as Secretary of Transportation, LaHood’s legacy will undoubtedly be his relentless focus on creating anti-distracted driving regulations. At last month’s “The Future of Freight Transportation” session in Washington, D.C., FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said the agency plans to release a five-year roadmap for future rulemakings. Expect other items from the VTTI distracted driving study will make the list.

Jeff Crissey is Editor of Commercial Carrier Journal.

E-mail [email protected] or call (205) 248-1244.