Cell phones are everywhere, so it’s no surprise that many, if not most, drivers of trucks large, small and in between carry cell phones. According to a recent survey, eight out of 10 commercial vehicle drivers have either a personal or company-owned cell phone or other portable electronic communications device. They have simply become an integral part of every mobile worker’s business and personal life. It’s also no surprise that using one of these devices while driving poses a potential safety risk. Drivers texting or talking on a cell phone are not fully concentrating on the road, the vehicles around them, and the fast changing environment created by speed, congestion and other distracted drivers.
The answer seems simple enough—prohibit all drivers from using cell phones while they’re driving. Regulators tend to like simple solutions, so as of March, 36 states had texting bans for all drivers and 11 banned all drivers from talking on handheld phones. (The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety maintains an upto- date list of state laws at iihs.org/laws/cellphonelaws.aspx.) As is often the case, truck drivers come under even more stringent controls when it comes to cell phone use. Not only have 19 states adopted specific laws prohibiting handheld use by commercial vehicle drivers of all types, but the federal government has issued tough rules banning the use of handheld devices for texting and conversation for those covered by its commercial driver regulations. That means some four million truck drivers can be fined $2,750 for talking on a phone while driving and lose their CDL for multiple offenses. Additionally, the companies they drive for can be fined up to $11,000 if they allow their drivers to use cell phones while driving.
From a business perspective, cell phone use by truck drivers creates a far more serious threat than large fines, exposing fleets to enormous liabilities in the event of an accident involving a driver using a device, whether it’s one issued by the fleet or a personal one. A 10-vehicle accident caused by a tractor-trailer driver checking his phone for text messages resulted in a total of $24.7 million in court judgments, most of it borne by the fleet he worked for. And many more examples of lawsuits involving truck accidents and driver cell phone use are all too easy to find.
Not So Simp le Many fleets already recognize the problem created by driver cell phone use, and that number is growing rapidly as others react to the new Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) rule with its significant penalties. Survey results released last month show the number of fleets with written cell phone use policies for their drivers rose from 62% last year to 80% this year. More significantly, the number of fleets that said they enforce those policies increased from 53% in 2011 to 86% this year, according to ZoomSafer, the company that conducted the survey.
But having a written policy isn’t enough to protect a fleet against FMCSA penalties or liability exposure if that policy only exists on paper. Even claiming to enforce it probably isn’t enough either if that enforcement isn’t a wholehearted effort or demonstrably effective.
“The practical reality is that very few companies are doing anything to actively or passively enforce compliance,” says Matt Howard, ZoomSafer founder and CEO. The company’s survey shows that roughly one-quarter of the fleets contacted are considering active or passive technology solutions, “but it’s still a relatively new issue and this is not an easy problem to solve,” he says.