Carrots, not sticks

Self-interest, not coercion, will solve cell phone problem

Talking or texting on mobile phones while driving a truck is not only a serious safety problem, it’s also an expensive one. In the first four months of this year, over 3,600 truck drivers and nearly 50 fleets they work for have been fined more than $10 million for violating a federal ban on using such handheld devices. A single infraction can cost a driver $2,750, and multiple ones can lead to the loss of their CDL. Fleets found guilty of “requiring or allowing” their employees to use handheld devices while driving can be fined up to $11,000 per incident.

In this new era of CSA safety recordkeeping, the impact also goes beyond the dollar amount of the fines. Cell phone use matches speeding as the most common reason drivers are pulled over for inspections, and a violation can ding a driver’s CSA record with up to 10 points, the same amount as a violation for reckless driving. And, of course, driver records reflect on the fleet’s very public CSA scores.

Given the high stakes, 85% of the fleets that responded to our reader survey back in April indicated that they had or plan to soon institute restrictions on driver cell phone use. The problem is enforcing those policies when drivers are on the road and trying to meet their responsibility to satisfy tight schedules and customer needs.

Clearly, driver distraction is a safety issue whether the driver is behind the wheel of a 5,000-lb. car or an 80,000-lb. truck. When it comes to the use of handheld devices, the feds leave regulation of auto drivers up to the states but have chosen the big-stick approach to address the issue with commercial vehicle drivers. And that’s too bad because it overlooks a more effective way to eliminate the unsafe behavior in commercial vehicles.

The vast majority of drivers in cars are using cell phones and other devices as a matter of convenience, which makes fines and license points the best approach to controlling unsafe use. But these devices have quickly become essential business tools for commercial drivers, which means an appeal to self-interest might be the more effective approach with them.

If that sounds too utopian for a hard-nosed business like trucking, take a look at advanced safety systems. ABS was arguably the first electronic safety system for heavy trucks, and its use on heavy tractors and then trailers was initially mandated by the government. When electronic stability control (ESC) was developed based on ABS architecture, the feds also showed interest in mandating that safety system. But a strange thing happened—many fleets quickly saw the value in adopting ESC. Mandate or not, they determined it would have a positive impact on their businesses. Subsequent advanced safety systems like smart cruise control and lane departure warning are following a similar adoption path without any hint of a federal requirement, but rather because fleets recognize a solid payback for their investment.

Self-interest trumps coercion every time. Fines may swell government coffers, but they won’t stop drivers from using what they consider an essential part of their job. If we want an effective way to keep drivers safer on the road, we need to focus on making cell phones and handhelds even better business tools that don’t distract them from their primary functions when the truck is underway.

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