Texting Ban For Commercial Drivers A Bellwether For Full Ban?

January 26, 2010

Truck or bus drivers who text while driving a commercial vehicle could be fined up to $2,750 as part of civil or criminal penalties.

That's what U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced today, explicitly prohibiting texting for commercial vehicle drivers.

But it's not a new rule. "This is no new law, no new regulation," clarifies Gerald Donaldson, senior research director at Advocates for Highway Safety. "It's a regulatory interpretation of an existing provision."

Because commercial vehicles involve interstate commerce, the federal government has full jurisdiction—and as Donaldson puts it, "a stick here that they can't use for fifty individual state governments."

While the federal government's jurisdiction over texting for passenger-vehicle drivers on a national level is still uncertain, it's "using the commercial area as an exemplar," Donaldson says, and an extension to all drivers might not be so far away.

Texting behind the wheel

Texting behind the wheel

Danger, danger

"He is taking a specific device and behavior that has been shown to be dangerous" and making a move to enforce it, explained Donaldson. "Handheld texting has been shown to be a manual, visual, and cognitive diversion."

According to Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) research, drivers who text while driving take their eyes off the road for 4.6 seconds out of every six seconds while texting, which at 55 mph ends up being the length of a football field. And according to research from the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, the risk of a crash or near-crash while driving a truck is more than 23 times higher when texting than when not.

Nearly 6,000 people were killed—and more than 500,000 injured—in crashes in 2008 alone due to a distracted or inattentive driver, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration regulations already prevent any activities in the cab—while driving—that jeopardize the safety of other motorists. And on December 30, 2009, a federal ban went into effect banning all federal employees from texting while driving government-owned vehicles or equipment.

Donaldson said his organization considers the announcement a positive step toward making the roadways safer, describing LaHood's action as "just, firm, and vigorous."

Uncertainty over enforcement

The FMC regulations already divide jurisdiction, between inspection (federal) and on-the-road enforcement (left to the states), so it's not altogether clear whether enforcement of the federal rules would nevertheless be enforced with the same rigor across the nation.

"Enforcement is a huge problem with any of these laws or regulations," commented Russ Rader, spokesman for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). "However, commercial drivers may be more likely to heed a texting ban because their jobs depend on it, while regular drivers in states with texting bans just have to avoid being spotted by a police officer."

Speeding up, slowing down and weaving back and forth are all caused by texting

Speeding up, slowing down and weaving back and forth are all caused by texting

Twenty states now place bans on texting while driving, applying to all drivers, while additional states have rules applying to young or new drivers; several other states have specifically extended the enforcement rules to school bus drivers. For more information on which rules might apply in your states, or states you're driving through, the IIHS maintains a good reference page on cellphone laws.

Broader ban to come?

Donaldson sees the move covering all commercial drivers as a bellwether; he expects the federal government to follow up in the near future by clarifying the restriction applies to other devices for truckers, such as laptop computers, live routing systems, and possibly even hands-free calling or texting interfaces. He also anticipates a "spillover effect to NHTSA," which would be able to extend a rule to all drivers, no matter what the type of vehicle—so the same restriction that applies to the driver of a 2010 Ford Transit Connect delivery van would also apply to the perhaps all-too-casual driver of a huge 2010 Cadillac Escalade, for instance.

LaHood has made distracted driving one of his top priorities thus far, and originally revealed his intent to be more specific with the commercial rules at the Distracted Driving Summit organized by the Transportation Department last fall.

Let us know what you think. Is texting while driving an issue that should only be regulated by the states, or does it put the public in enough danger to justify federal rules?

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