This past November, with huge fanfare and little anticipation from motor carriers themselves, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration released its final rule that effectively bans handheld cell phones while a vehicle is in motion. Basically already in place at the carrier level through corporate safety policies, this rule finally lends some federal bite to a policy that carriers continually try to enforce throughout their fleets.
In fact, by the time you read this column, this rule will already be in place. Not only will it be enforced to the tune of up to a $2,750 fine for each offense, but a driver can be disqualified from operating a commercial motor vehicle for multiple offenses. Additionally, states will suspend a driver's commercial driver's license (CDL) after two or more serious traffic violations. Commercial truck and bus companies that allow their drivers to use handheld cell phones while driving will face a maximum penalty of $11,000.
My main concern about this rulemaking is the timing. Being the proactive, pro-safety industry that trucking is, why has it taken so long for FMCSA to issue this final rule? While the rule stands to improve safety on our highways, the lack of expediency in its release is prevalent, as even the Truckload Carriers Assn. safe use of technology policy was adopted a full year before FMCSA issued its notice of proposed rulemaking.
Almost a year in the making since the agency posted its notice of proposed rulemaking, carriers have long waited for additional support to enforce their handheld cell phone policies. The story had always been that drivers were not allowed to talk on handheld phones while operating their trucks — the chief complaint, though, was how to enforce it. Management could not exactly devote endless hours to riding in trucks to make sure drivers were not talking on cell phones. And after following what appeared to be endless guidance and studies about the safety aspects of cell phone usage, policies were adopted at the carrier level to ban the use of handheld cell phones while driving. With the publishing of the final rule, motor carriers can now rely on law enforcement to support their company policy and federal law as well.
We all know the wheels of government regulation turn slowly, but in this day and age, any regulation is certain to come under the scrutiny of safety advocates and industry alike, so the agency must be extra careful. Yet carriers continue to wait on regulations to add some bite to their already existing policies.
Yes, hours of service seem to be at the forefront of all discussions these days — and probably will do so for years after the final rule is released. However, regulations with industry-wide acceptance should certainly be pushed to the head of the pack so that carriers and enforcement officials across the country can act as one in enforcing regulations that make sense, much like the distracted driving issue.
While the hope is that passenger vehicles will one day become part of this ban as well, the industry will continue to be ahead of the curve when following guidance and sound science when making improvements that allow for the safer performance of their fleet.
David Heller, CDS, is director of safety and policy for the Truckload Carriers Assn. He is responsible for interpreting and communicating industry-related regulations and legislation to the membership of TCA. Send comments to [email protected].