A new U.S. law prohibiting cell phone use by commercial drivers gets needed clarification.
By Sue McCraven
Alexander Graham Bell and Henry Ford never saw the coming collision. At one end of the road came the rapid advance of communications technology with rampant cell phone use, and the automobile, with all its modern safety enhancements, barreled headlong from the opposite direction. Today we have witnessed the horrific crash that was bound to happen: Two technologies, no matter how well designed, can be incompatible – unless some basic rules are also put into motion.
The U.S. government has done just that by applying new rules that, in its estimation, will make the highways safer. A new joint rule of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), set forth by the U.S. Department of Transportation in January, bans cell phone use by commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers.
The new rule banning cell phones is based on a determination that “the action of taking one’s eyes off the forward roadway to reach for and dial a hand-held mobile telephone” carries the greatest risk of distraction and accidents. It affects not just professional drivers, but anyone driving a vehicle with a gross weight of 10,001 lbs or greater – including service trucks used for smaller deliveries or towing equipment at precast companies. In other words, if you’re hauling precast, this means you!
Basis for the new cell phone rule
The intent behind the new FMCSA/PHMSA rule is to prevent driver distraction and accidents – by insuring that both hands remain on the steering wheel and the eyes are focused on the road at all times.1
Researchers classify driver distraction into four categories:
1. Visual (taking one’s eyes off the road)
2. Manual (taking one’s hands off the wheel)
3. Cognitive (thinking about something other than the road or driving)
4. Auditory (listening to the radio or someone talking)
Research has shown that using a mobile telephone while driving poses a greater risk than, say, eating fast food or adjusting the radio, because it involves all four types of driver distraction listed. Based on this research, the FMCSA and PHMSA determined that drivers who use mobile phones may not be capable of safely operating a vehicle.
Here are some facts surrounding the new ruling:
• FMCSA determined that the action of taking one’s eyes off the forward roadway to reach for and dial a mobile telephone is a highly risky activity.
• Drivers cannot use cell phones while stopped in traffic but must pull off the roadway and stop (no longer operating a vehicle in traffic) to place a call.
• Any violations of the new ruling can result in (maximum) fines of $11,000 to the company and $2,750 to the driver.
• CMV drivers are allowed to use a one-button device with an earpiece.
• Drivers need strong consistent support from upper management in compliance with this ruling.
• CMV operators may still use cell phones for emergency or (homeland) security response activities.
• The FCC (Federal Communications Commission) definition for mobile telephone does not include two-way or citizens band (CB) radio services.
• Nine states and the District of Columbia have traffic laws prohibiting all motor vehicle drivers from using a hand-held mobile telephone while driving.
• State and federal employees (including military drivers) are exempt.
Rule requires strong management support
“Precast owners must expect that they will need to make procedural modifications to comply with the new rule,” says Dennis Powell, risk control director with CNA Insurance and an expert in fleet safety. “A good way to think of the rule is if a device requires the driver to look for, reach for, hold or dial it, the device cannot be used.”
“Drivers need strong support for the new policy right from the top,” says Nancy Nealon of Concrete Step Units Inc., Scranton, Pa. “These new rules require constant vigilance and strict policies. We support our people, but we will not tolerate abuses. If anyone is caught using a cell phone while driving, they will be terminated,” she says.
“We’ve been very strict with the policy, but the rule needs to have more clarity,” says Betsy Mack of Mack Industries, Vienna, Ohio. “With an $11,000 fine, management will not tolerate cell phone use while driving.” Mack said she has concerns about how the compliance will affect customer service. “Time is money, and the time to pull over to make a call may delay a delivery,” says Mack. “We need to know where our drivers are and customers need to know when the product will be delivered.”
Powell agrees. “It will take additional time for precast drivers to get off the road and be safely parked to respond to a cell phone call from the main office about delivery time or the driver’s location,” he says. CMV drivers of precast delivery trucks (and some service trucks) can no longer depend on a hand-held communication device like a cell phone while driving. “Only a one-button device, like a two-way radio or CB, is not affected by the ruling.” Powell noted that GPS tracking voice-activated devices are some tools that precast manufacturers can use and still be in compliance with the new rule.
Drivers weigh in
Making a cell phone call on the road under the new rule poses challenges for truck drivers. “My truck and trailer rig is long, over 70 feet, so it is no simple matter to pull over or park to make a cell phone call,” says Terry McGinnis of Dellinger Precast Inc. in Denver, N.C. And that, of course, goes back to the “time is money” matter.
Where safety is at issue, truck drivers generally agree that, in fairness, the rule should apply across the board. “In my mind, the ruling’s biggest disadvantage is that it is discriminatory to mandate a strict rule for commercial drivers when everyone else on the road is using cell phones and texting. We see it all the time,” says McGinnis, who has 38 years of commercial driving experience. “If we want driving to be safe, these rules on cell phone usage must be for everyone on the road.”
“I think it’s a very good rule but should be applied to personal vehicles also – it’s obvious that the use of cell phones while driving is a safety issue for anyone who drives a vehicle, not just commercial drivers or truckers,” says Jeff Hughes, a CMV driver for Concrete Step Units Inc. “These trucks that we drive are 8 feet wide and over 35 feet long and not meant for an emergency pull-off on a highway shoulder.”
From his experience, Hughes estimates that about five out of 10 drivers are using a phone or texting. “It’s a constant challenge to be handling a big rig when automobile drivers are zipping around using one hand to text or scroll or enter a phone number,” he says. “I always drive defensively.”
Is the new rule discriminatory?
Nealon and Mack agree that the ruling is unfair in singling out CMV drivers when other people, teens and adults, are driving while using cell phones and texting indiscriminately.
Nicole Dellinger of Dellinger Precast Inc. added that the statistics are staggering concerning the increase in accidents and vehicular deaths related to cell phone use. “While this is a good ruling, we feel it’s a good ruling for everyone who drives, not just commercial drivers,” she says.
This regulatory trend is expected to increase as more states ban the use of cell phones while driving, based on research that directly correlates cell phone distractions with an increase in roadway accidents. “It seems the rule targets big truckers in a way that is discriminatory,” adds Nealon. “If it’s a good rule for driving safety for truckers to refrain from cell phone use, then it is a good ruling across the board for everyone – teenagers, soccer moms, salesmen, anyone who drives.”
Laws in Canada
Since 2010, distracted driving laws similar to those adopted in the United States have been enacted by all Canadian provinces. Fines and driver’s license demerit points accrued for violations depend on the province of jurisdiction.
Sue McCraven, NPCA technical consultant and Precast Solutions editor, is a civil and environmental engineer.
1 Rule may be found at www.fmcsa.dot.gov/rules-regulations/administration/rulemakings/final/Mobile_phone_NFRM.pdf