Banning trucker texting

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We want to make it crystal clear to operators and their employers that texting while driving is the type of unsafe activity that these regulations are intended to prohibit.” --Anne Ferro, Administrator for the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA)

It’s official now: texting while driving a big rig or bus is now expressly prohibited under the law, effective today by order of the Department of Transportation (DOT) and its commercial vehicle regulatory body, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA).

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U.S Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at a press conference in downtown Washington D.C. today that this action – banning texting while driving big rigs – results from interpretation of standing DOT regulations. And there’s big fines attached to this new rule as well: Truck and bus drivers who text while driving commercial vehicles may be subject to civil or criminal penalties of up to $2,750.

“We want the drivers of big rigs and buses and those who share the roads with them to be safe,” said Secretary LaHood. “This is an important safety step and we will be taking more to eliminate the threat of distracted driving.” He added that regulatory guidance on this new ruling will be on public display in the Federal Register January 26 and will appear in print in the Federal Register on January 27.

Now, there’s good reasoning behind this band – snicker though some of us might do. FMCSA’s research shows that drivers who send and receive text messages behind the wheel take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every 6 seconds spent texting. At 55 miles per hour, this means that the driver is traveling the length of a football field – including the end zones, the agency stressed – without looking at the road.

As a result, FMCSA said drivers that text while operating a vehicle – and not just a commercial vehicle, it should be stressed – are more than 20 times more likely to get in an accident than non-distracted drivers.

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The agency pointedly noted at the press conference announcing this new rule that, due to the safety risks associated with the use of electronic devices while driving, it’s also working on additional regulatory measures that will be announced in the coming months.

Most of the trucking community is in favor of these rules with some caveats here and there. I mean, come on, let’s face it: truck drivers KNOW how much chaos exists on our roadways today, and most try to keep their eyes glued to the asphalt outside their windshields and reflected in their mirrors.

Look, the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety itself found that when trucks and cars have accidents, in almost two-thirds of the cases, a mistake by the CAR driver caused the crash to occur. To me, that means much of the “driving while distracted” issue isn’t going to found or solved in the cabs of big rigs.

There’s also the ticklish matter of bypassing the nominal regulatory process to make this ban on texting the rule of the road – something that particularly bothered the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association (OOIDA).

“We support where they are going, but not how they got there,” said Todd Spencer, OOIDA’s executive vice president. “Making their action effective immediately bypasses normal regulatory rulemaking processes. Those processes allow actions to be vetted for unintended consequences, as well as potential implementation and enforcement problems. We very much share in their goal, but their legal justification for taking immediate action raises many concerns.”

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Spencer said professional truckers have a vested interest in highway safety as their lives and livelihoods quite literally depend on it. “Every day on roadways across America, professional truckers’ witness drivers operating vehicles while engaged in activities that significantly impede their ability to attend to the task of driving safely,” he pointed out. “Experience has shown these professionals that, in particular, drivers sending text or e-mail messages while operating a vehicle are a significant hazard to themselves and to other roadway users.”

That’s why OOIDA supports government efforts to prohibit ALL motorists from sending text or email messages while operating a moving vehicle, not just truck drivers. And it’s getting fire support for its position from an often-times opponent of trucking issues, the American Trucking Associations (ATA).

“ATA recognizes that texting while driving substantially elevates the risk of being involved in a crash and, to promote highway safety, and further improve the trucking industry’s continually improving safety record, we support DOT's action to ban the use of handheld wireless devices by commercial drivers to send or receive text messages,” noted Governor Bill Graves, the group’s president and CEO.

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Yet he cautioned that it is important to study the DOT’s regulatory guidance to know the full effect of this change on truck and bus drivers, while also broadening its scope to include all motorists.

“This prohibition would be enforced against drivers of commercial vehicles, including trucks and buses. ATA would like to see a ban on texting extended to all automobile drivers as well. DOT could influence the states to do so,” Graves added.

Funny enough, the association representing motorists wants to see this ban expanded, too. “This action reinforces the fact that any form of distracted driving by any driver is a serious traffic safety issue,” noted AAA Vice President of Public Affairs Kathleen Marvaso. “[Yet our] state advocacy agenda for 2010 includes enacting texting while driving bans in all 50 states, as texting while driving presents a danger to ALL road users … in addition to the mental distraction caused by taking one’s mind off the task at hand.”

AAA is strongly urging all drivers – not just truckers and bus operators – to focus on driving and avoid all behaviors that result in distractions while at the wheel, Marvaso added.

That, of course, will be the real trick; for as the old saying goes, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” Eliminating texting while behind the wheel is easy to do on paper, but not so in real life. And yet … in the space of just five years, the use of seat belts by truckers jumped from under 50% to over 72%, and it’s still climbing. That tells me truckers can and will change their habits behind the wheel – the question is, will the rest of the motoring public follow their example?

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Trucks at Work: Sean Kilcarr comments on trends affecting the many different strata of the trucking industry.

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