A new law has recently gone into effect that may help you worry a bit less the next time you find yourself driving next to a tractor-trailer on a highway. In early January of this year, the United States Department of Transportation’s ban on commercial truck drivers using hand-held cellphones while on duty went into effect. This law is an addition to a previous Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration ban from September of 2010 prohibiting drivers from sending text messages while driving, which may be even more dangerous than simply talking, given that one’s eyes must leave the road and focus on a phone screen for several seconds at a time.
Drivers found to be in violation can face fines up to $2,750 with additional charges of up to $11,000 for the trucking company that employs them. States will have the ability to suspend a driver’s CDL (Commercial Driver’s License) after two or more “serious traffic violations.”
Tractor-trailer safety has long been a safety concern: a study by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 2008 found that large trucks comprise about 4% of vehicles on the road at any given time, but they account for 8% of vehicles involved in fatal crashes. Additionally, the American Transportation Research Institute recently established that almost 30% of active truck drivers suffer from sleep apnea, which results in chronic fatigue.
The National Safety Council estimates that 1.6 million accidents per year (among all vehicles–not just trucks) are caused by texting while driving. United States Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood issued a statement about this new rule saying, “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. I hope that this rule will save lives by helping commercial drivers stay laser-focused on safety at all times while behind the wheel.”
Tractor-trailer drivers are by definition professional drivers, and it makes sense that they should be held to a higher standard of safety on our highways (it should be noted that many states already prohibit hand-held cellphone use and texting for all drivers, including civilians). The law still allows for truck drivers to use Bluetooth headsets or other hands-free devices should they need to make calls while on the road. It is also worth noting that that law does not make any mention of GPS or map hardware, which can be just as distracting to drivers as cell phones. In fact, in 2009 Feldman Shepherd attorneys represented the family of a New Jersey woman who was killed when a tractor-trailer driver took his eyes off the road to read directions off a Qualcomm navigational device, ran a red light, and struck her car in the middle of an intersection.
This rule is certainly a step in the right direction (especially when coupled with existing rules prohibiting drowsy truck drivers from being on-duty), but policymakers should bear in mind that there are other sources of distraction like GPS consoles and radio units with which drivers are faced regularly.