Make the tough call

Drivers and carriers are working to comply with cell phone ban

If Kenny Rogers were to pen a song about talking and/or texting while driving a commercial vehicle, it might go something like this: “You got to know when you can talk … and when you can’t talk … know when it’s safe to text … and know when it should be shunned …”In fact, the law as it applies to truck and bus operators is very clear on the subject of talking and/or texting while driving.

As of Jan. 3 of this year, a rule jointly crafted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration prohibits any commercial truck or bus driver conducting business or otherwise acting on the company’s behalf from using handheld cell phones while driving—with stiff penalties for violators and their employers.

Under that rule, individual drivers caught violating the rule face civil penalties of up to $2,750. Employers, too, can be fined up to $11,000 per infraction committed. (You can read the complete text of the new rule at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-12-02/html/2011-30749.htm.)

Most believe, however, the rule offers only a strong first step in the effort to battle the larger issue of distracted driving among commercial vehicle operators and everyday motorists alike.“Anything that’s done to help focus more of a commercial truck and bus driver’s attention on the road is a good thing, but there’s still a lot more education and outreach we need to conduct concerning the issue of ‘distracted driving,’” says Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA).

“We’re very supportive of this effort, but we need to be careful with the regulatory approach to dealing with the distracted driving issue,” he points out. “Distracted driving goes way beyond the use of handheld devices for there’s an awful lot of technology present in today’s truck cab. It’s really going to require a culture change in how we approach driver behavior while operating their vehicles.”Many fleets echo that view, adding that they hope drivers will self-police themselves where the cell phone ban is concerned.“We don’t micromanage our drivers; we tell them what needs to be done to stay compliant with the many rules governing this industry, but we expect them to manage that compliance,” says Stan Pritchett, general manager for regional TL carrier Beacon Transport.Yet like all safety-related issues, if drivers don’t follow the rules, they will pay a price, he stresses, and carriers will step in if need be since they are being held liable for the actions of their drivers under the regulations.

“We’ll treat it just like we treat seat belt usage,” Pritchett says. “If a driver gets caught not wearing his or her seat belt, we’ll cut back the available engine speed on their truck. And if there’s something that gets a driver’s attention, it’s speed restrictions on their vehicles.” Technology is also playing a big role in terms of enforcing the cell phone ban, with many providers of truck-based communication systems adding “blocking” controls to their products, automatically disabling them while a commercial vehicle is in motion.“We recognize that fleet managers need to accurately monitor driver behavior behind the wheel and understand that dedicated adherence to safety is what keeps fleets on the road,” explains Norm Ellis, vice president-sales, services and marketing for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.

During the company’s Vision 2012 biennial customer conference last June, Ellis pointed out that the company’s MCP110 and MCP200 in-cab communication devices are equipped with the proprietary In-Motion user interface that prevents drivers from using those devices while the vehicle is in motion.

“Drivers don’t like when the MCP110 in their truck doesn’t work when they are rolling down the road, but I like it,” notes Chris Callis, maintenance manager for Beacon Transport. “I am hoping similar technology can be deployed to block cell phones the same way.”

TECH SOLUTIONS

In fact, such technology is being deployed—and from many different suppliers. For example, Baton Rouge, LA-based Cellcontrol has adapted its cell phone-blocking system to the SAE J1939 trucking industry standard, allowing the company’s system to operate within a variety of fleet vehicles including tractor-trailers, school buses, heavy equipment. and other Class A vehicles.

Using the vehicle’s computer, Chuck Cox, Cellcontrol’s senior vice president & COO, says his company’s device determines when the vehicle is moving at any speed. It then blocks the use of a driver’s cell phone or laptop based on the company’s distracted driving policy—preventing phone calls, texting, email, web, push-to-talk, and other distracting features.

He stresses, however, that calling 911 is a function always allowed to the driver, while all incoming texts, emails and calls are stored for review since they cannot be accessed while the vehicle is moving.

“There’s always three phases to dealing with issues like the cell phone ban,” Cox says. “First, there must be an awareness of the issue, followed by a fleet taking ownership of the issue. Finally, there’s the resolution phase, where solutions for the issues are deployed.” Overall, depending on the fleet size and reporting requirements, Cellcontrol’s per vehicle pricing is expected to range from $100 to $150 for one year of service and about $50 for each subsequent year thereafter.

Yet Cox stresses that the cost of the technology is in many ways miniscule compared to potential costs facing fleets should a driver get into an accident as the result of being distracted by cell phone usage.

The National Safety Council (NSC) is one group that has strongly urged much faster adoption of technologies to prevent cell phone use by commercial vehicle drivers, noting that its research indicates that 23% of all crashes each year involve cell phone use.

“We called for a national ban on all cell phone use among drivers in 2009, recognizing that research shows no safety benefit from hands-free devices,” explains Janet Froetscher, president & CEO of NSC. “The distraction to the brain from cell phone use can cause drivers to miss seeing up to 50% of their driving environment.”

And the issue of distractive cell phone use is not limited to the trucking industry. Technology provider ZoomSafer, Herndon, VA, discerned in a survey completed last year that 32% of companies know about on-the-job crashes caused by cell phone distractions, yet only slightly more than half of them make any attempt to enforce corporate policies banning the use of cell phones by employees while operating a vehicle.

SURVEY SAYS

ZoomSafer says its survey, which polled 500 business managers in North America, was designed to gauge corporate attitudes and best practices pertaining to distracted driving. The company says its findings indicate rapidly growing concern among corporate managers about distracted driving risks and liability, with 62% of the companies polled noting that they’ve adopted written policies prohibiting employees from using a mobile phone while driving on company business.

Yet the same survey also revealed that while many companies have adopted written cell phone driving policies, only half (53%) make any attempt to enforce compliance. Among companies that do enforce compliance, the survey found that 61% rely on post-incident disciplinary measures, and only 2% use technology to proactively measure and manage employee compliance. Other details uncovered in the company’s survey include:

q 32% of companies have knowledge or evidence of vehicle crashes that occurred as a result of distractions stemming from employee use of a cell phone while driving; 50% of companies with over 500 drivers have knowledge or evidence of such crashes.

q 7.6% of companies have faced litigation resulting from damages alleged to have occurred as a result of employee use of cell phones while driving. For companies with more than 5,000 drivers, the same statistic is 37%.

q 62% of companies have implemented a written cell phone use policy. Long-haul trucking and local trucking companies were the most likely to have a written cell phone policy (71% and 83%, respectively) while home and business services companies were least likely (less than 50%).

q 53% of companies with a defined cell phone policy claim to enforce the policy in some manner. Interestingly, 25% of respondents who claim to have a policy declined to answer how such policies were enforced. For companies who did answer the policy enforcement question, 61% said they utilized “post-incident” employee discipline to enforce compliance.

“The fact that so many companies are telling employees to put the phone down while driving is encouraging from a policy perspective; however, from a practical perspective, it’s simply not enough to change behavior,” says Matt Howard, CEO of ZoomSafer.

“To truly change behavior and fully protect themselves from liability, companies must actively measure and enforce employee compliance with cell phone use policies,” he stresses.

PRIMARY DUTY

Such enforcement is only going to become more critical as cell and smartphones become ever-more ubiquitous tools for vehicle operators across the business spectrum.

For example, business system supplier uShip surveyed over 26,000 drivers between Oct. 17 and Oct. 30 of last year, encompassing larger carriers, small fleets, owner-operators, and “hot-shot” drivers handling time-critical freight. The survey discerned that seven out of 10 drivers are conducting more business via mobile devices than ever before (in 2011, the rate was six out of 10) with nearly twice as many U.S. truck drivers favoring Android phones versus iPhones. One in four rely on what uShip calls a “basic feature” cell phone. Yet over half of all drivers say that cell phone texting bans have not changed their phone behavior on the road.

The firm’s poll found that text messaging (79%), Internet/ email (65%), and camera use (55%) rank as the most popular features among drivers, with 26% now using their mobile device for social media access, up from 13% in 2011 and 19% in 2010. And 43% now widely use smartphone applications, or apps, for daily business needs. This is a jump of 16% over 2011 and 10% over 2010, with nearly one in two (47%) now more likely to buy a tablet for business, up from one in four (26%) in 2011.

It’s those trend lines that worry highway safety advocates like CVSA’s Stephen Keppler. He believes that to truly make such cell phone bans effective will require a big change of approach by both drivers and management within the trucking community.

“People at the working level in this industry, the drivers, need to understand that operating their vehicles is a sacred task,” he explains. “Management must reinforce this view by explaining to them that, no, we don’t want you responding to a cell phone call or text message until you’ve pulled over to a safe place. We need you to first and foremost focus on the road in front of you; that is your primary duty.”

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