New federal rule forces truck and bus drivers to put down the phone

Kristin McGrath
A new federal rule issued by the U.S. Department of Transportation will soon make distracted driving expensive for commercial drivers. Drivers who get caught using hand-held phones will get slapped with fines of up to $2,750, while the companies they work for face penalties of up to $11,000.

The rule was issued by two agencies within the Department of Transportation -- the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. It will take effect Jan. 3, 2012.
A step up
Previous federal rules have banned texting while operating a bus or commercial truck, or while transporting hazardous materials. This new rule is far more comprehensive, banning all hand-held phone use (talking and texting) for commercial truck drivers, bus drivers and drivers of small commercial passenger vehicles (like shuttle buses) that fit between nine and 15 passengers. According to the Department of Transportation, the new rule will affect about 4 million drivers.
The safety of commercial drivers -- and those who share the road with them -- was the main motivation for issuing the rule, according to the Department of Transportation. While hands-free phones do entail some distraction, hand-held phone use requires the driver to search for the phone, reach for the phone, dial the phone and hold onto it throughout the conversation. The simple act of reaching for the phone makes the driver three times as likely to crash -- dialing makes a crash six times as likely, according to the Department of Transportation.
"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," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "I hope that this rule will save lives by helping commercial drivers stay laser-focused on safety at all times while behind the wheel."
Mixed reactions
Since the announcement of the rule in late November, the reaction from commercial drivers has been varied. For example, the American Trucking Associations, a group that represents the trucking industry, came out in support of the rule after it was announced. Yet before the rule became official, the group raised concerns about fines against trucking companies. Shifting the responsibility for drivers' transgressions to their employers, the group said in a February 2010 statement, is "unrealistic and inappropriate."
The Owner-Operated Independent Drivers Association, meanwhile, has questioned whether the fines actually would curb distracted driving -- or whether they simply would cause financial hardship for truckers who get caught.
The American Trucking Associations also points out that while truck drivers will be prohibited from using hand-held phones, other drivers won't be. Distracted driving laws for non-commercial passenger vehicles are up to each individual state. Just nine states and the District of Columbia ban all hand-held phone use for all drivers.

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