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Handheld cell phone ban takes effect for commercial truck, bus drivers

February 1, 2012

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By Thomas J. Bukowski, associate editor

A final rule banning commercial motor vehicle drivers from using handheld cell phones while driving on interstates went into effect Jan. 3.

The joint final rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration will affect approximately 4 million CMV drivers, according to FMCSA. Emphasizing that “lives are at stake,” FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro said in a statement that the final rule “represents a giant leap for safety. It’s just too dangerous for drivers to use a handheld cell phone while operating a commercial vehicle.”

Under the ban, drivers face penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense and disqualification from operating a CMV after multiple offenses. States can suspend a driver’s commercial driver’s license after two or more serious traffic violations, including violations of cell phone laws for CMV drivers. Additionally, the ban holds commercial truck and bus companies accountable for violations, authorizing a maximum penalty of $11,000 for companies whose drivers violate the ban when performing work for the company.

According to the final rule (.pdf file), CMV drivers may use handheld cell phones while driving only in special circumstances, such as contacting law enforcement or emergency services. Drivers also may use the devices if they are safely pulled over, but are prohibited from using them when they are temporarily stopped at a traffic light or in a traffic delay.

Mixed feedback from industry, interest groups

Most feedback received by FMCSA and PHMSA during the rule’s public commenting period was supportive of the handheld cell phone ban. However, some groups questioned the need for a ban, while others asked why the ban would not include hands-free devices.

Some commenters argued that the ban would “impede business” and require drivers to make additional stops. One group opposed to the ban, the Grain Valley, MO-based Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, questioned why handheld cell phones would be banned while other electronic devices used by CMV drivers, such as fleet management devices, would not. “A handheld cell phone could certainly be a distraction for some, but it’s one of hundreds of possible distractions that confront drivers every day,” a spokesperson for OOIDA told Safety+Health.

The Washington-based Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety called for a complete ban on cell phone use by CMV drivers. In an interview with S+H, Advocates Vice President and General Counsel Henry Jasny said drivers should be focused on the task at hand. “There are enough other distractions that we do not have to add to them by allowing people to be having conversations, hands-free or handheld,” he said.

Safety groups question use of naturalistic studies

When deciding whether to ban all cell phone use – including hands-free devices – by commercial motor vehicle operators, FMCSA and PHMSA looked to distracted driving research. According to the final rule, the agencies found that the results of “naturalistic” driver distraction studies provided the most compelling evidence when making their decision. However, some safety groups, including the National Safety Council, contend that naturalistic studies do not capture the full scope of distracted driving behaviors and are not fully representative of the driving public.

Naturalistic studies use a combination of sensors and a multiple-camera setup to record participants’ standard daily driving activities. The recordings are used to determine what behaviors or external factors cause “safety-critical events,” which can be a crash, near crash or close call, according to distracted driving researcher Richard Hanowski. Hanowski is director for the Center for Truck and Bus Safety at the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute and was one of the researchers on two naturalistic VTTI studies referenced in FMCSA and PHMSA’s final rule banning handheld cell phone use.

Both studies, one conducted in 2009 and the other in 2010, broke down the act of using a cell phone while driving into “subtasks” and determined that reaching for and dialing a cell phone increased safety risk, Hanowski said.

The studies also found that hands-free devices did not significantly increase the odds of being in a safety-critical event. However, the 2009 study notes that further research is necessary to determine the effect that hands-free devices have on cognitive distraction. Cognitive distraction, when applied to driving behaviors, is the degree to which an activity takes a driver’s focus away from the roadway.

John Ulczycki, Group Vice President for Strategic Initiatives at the National Safety Council, said naturalistic driver distraction studies, such as the VTTI studies, have limitations. Such studies do not measure cognitive distraction for multiple reasons, he said, one of which is that recording a driver’s face without audio is not sufficient to determine when drivers may be using hands-free or embedded devices.

Ulczycki said FMCSA and PHMSA should have taken into account all driver distraction research findings when making its decision. When it comes to public policy, Ulczycki said, the council believes that decision-makers should consult scientific evidence from all available credible sources. “All research methods have strengths and weaknesses, and no one research method or source should be used as the sole basis for public policy,” he said. He cited a National Safety Council white paper (.pdf file) on distracted driving, which looked at all available literature and determined that the consensus of the literature’s findings was that a driver’s risk of crashing when using a hands-free phone is “about 4 times as great as when not using a phone while driving.”

Jasny told S+H he believes the literature on distracted driving shows a link between handheld cell phone use and cognitive distraction. Also, he said, it is “common sense” that “when you are talking on the phone, especially when having an intense conversation, you get tunnel vision and are really not paying attention to everything that is going on in front of you on the roadway.”

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