Get Off the Phone

A federal cellphone ban for commercial drivers carries hefty fines and is likely to be adopted at the state level, as well

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Talking on most cellphones is being banned for drivers of all commercial vehicles in the United States – all 4 million of them. If the law doesn’t apply to you right now, it will within three years, according to Bob Kolvey, safety director for Motor Carrier Compliance & Safety Company.

Since Jan. 3., it has been illegal in most instances to use a mobile phone while operating a commercial vehicle involved in interstate commerce (across state lines). The rule will eventually apply to all commercial drivers. All states have three years to adopt the rule. Many states have adopted it or already had banned use of phones while driving. So it is important to know the regulations in your state and others where you operate.

Other changes have been made to regulations covering commercial driver’s licenses (CDLs), including changes to medical card requirements.


Supported by industry

The crackdown on distracted driving by the U.S. Department of Transportation is supported by the American Trucking Association. “Studies have shown that actions like texting and dialing a phone can greatly increase crash risk,” says ATA president and CEO Bill Graves in a news release. “Taking steps to curb these behaviors holds great promise to improve highway safety.”

Tim Frank, president of the National Association of Wastewater Transporters and retired owner of Tim Frank Septic Cleaning Company of Huntsburg, Ohio, says NAWT hasn’t taken a position on the law, but stresses that people need to be aware of it. The association sponsored an Education Day seminar about the new laws at the Pumper & Cleaner Environmental Expo last February.

Frank says NAWT may offer a full-day or half-day seminar at the 2013 Expo covering the cellphone restrictions and other new rules related to CDLs. For instance, CDL laws don’t just deal with the weight of the vehicle being driven. They include the combined weight of the truck and equipment towed or carried.

“We just bought a new jetter, and we have to get the pickup driver a CDL to pull it,” Frank says. “Many people don’t realize they may not need a license plate for a jetter, but when you hook it to a commercial truck, you may need a CDL for the driver.”


Severe penalties

The new cellphone law does not require companies running commercial trucks to have a written policy or training programs, but the owners are responsible for drivers’ conduct. Employers may not allow or require drivers to use handheld phones.

The fine for violating the new cellphone regulation is $2,750 for the driver and $11,000 for the employer, per violation. Drivers convicted of violations twice in three years will be disqualified from operating for 60 days, and for 120 days for three convictions in three years. States can also suspend CDL licenses for multiple violations.

The new law applies only to cellphones – not to company radios or CB radios. In essence, it bans the use of cellphones, including hands-free devices, if the driver has to push more than one button to make or answer a call. “If you have something like Bluetooth that answers and hangs up the phone with one button, then you can use it,” says Kolvey. “They want you keeping your eyes on the road.”

The law also bans reaching for or holding a phone while driving or dialing a phone, unless it is a hands-free device with voice-activated dialing. Push-to-talk phones, which allow use of cellphones like walkie-talkies, are not allowed because they require pushing a button more than once.

“They want cellphones out of all automobiles, too,” notes Kolvey. Though the U.S. DOT doesn’t have that power, he expects all states eventually to have similar cellphone bans. The ATA also supports such a ban. “While the federal government cannot enact such bans for drivers of passenger vehicles, ATA urges all states to follow the lead and take steps to ban these dangerous activities for all drivers,” Graves says.


Life-saving initiative

U.S. Department of Transportation secretary Ray LaHood announced the ban last November, noting that when drivers of large trucks, buses, or vehicles carrying 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,” LaHood says.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration points out that distracted-driver studies have had mixed results, but they do show that commercial drivers are three times more likely to be involved in a crash or other incident when reaching for an object, such as a phone, and six times more likely while dialing a handheld phone.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 5,400 people died in distracted-driver crashes in 2009, another half million were injured. It says 16 percent of traffic fatalities in 2009 were related to distracted driving.


Medical card changes

In addition to the cellphone rules, changes to CDL medical card requirements became effective on Jan. 30. Whether intrastate or interstate drivers, all CDL holders now must self-certify to the state by Jan. 30, 2014. “Interstate drivers must also submit a copy of their medical card so their state Bureau of Motor Vehicles has it on file,” says Kolvey.

The new regulations require most interstate CDL drivers to submit the medical card for new, renewal, upgrade, duplicate and state-to-state transfer license applications. The U.S. DOT also hopes to have that information available in a federal database. CDL drivers fall into one of four categories with different requirements:

Interstate commerce and subject to Part 391 requirements – must provide a federal medical card to your state DMV.

Interstate commerce and excepted from Part 391 requirements (certain farming and beekeeping activities, school buses, and several others) – do not need a federal medical card (your state may require it, however).

Intrastate commerce – must have a federal medical card.

Excepted intrastate commerce – do not need a federal medical card (your state may require it, however).

All CDL licensees should have received or will receive the proper forms from their state.


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