If Kenny Rogers were to pen a song about talking and/or texting while driving a commercial vehicle, it might go something like this: “You got to know when you can talk … and when you can’t talk … know when it’s safe to text … and know when it should be shunned …”In fact, the law as it applies to truck and bus operators is very clear on the subject of talking and/or texting while driving.

As of Jan. 3 of this year, a rule jointly crafted by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration prohibits any commercial truck or bus driver conducting business or otherwise acting on the company’s behalf from using handheld cell phones while driving—with stiff penalties for violators and their employers.

Under that rule, individual drivers caught violating the rule face civil penalties of up to $2,750. Employers, too, can be fined up to $11,000 per infraction committed. (You can read the complete text of the new rule at http://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/FR-2011-12-02/html/2011-30749.htm.)

Most believe, however, the rule offers only a strong first step in the effort to battle the larger issue of distracted driving among commercial vehicle operators and everyday motorists alike.“Anything that’s done to help focus more of a commercial truck and bus driver’s attention on the road is a good thing, but there’s still a lot more education and outreach we need to conduct concerning the issue of ‘distracted driving,’” says Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance (CVSA).

“We’re very supportive of this effort, but we need to be careful with the regulatory approach to dealing with the distracted driving issue,” he points out. “Distracted driving goes way beyond the use of handheld devices for there’s an awful lot of technology present in today’s truck cab. It’s really going to require a culture change in how we approach driver behavior while operating their vehicles.”Many fleets echo that view, adding that they hope drivers will self-police themselves where the cell phone ban is concerned.“We don’t micromanage our drivers; we tell them what needs to be done to stay compliant with the many rules governing this industry, but we expect them to manage that compliance,” says Stan Pritchett, general manager for regional TL carrier Beacon Transport.Yet like all safety-related issues, if drivers don’t follow the rules, they will pay a price, he stresses, and carriers will step in if need be since they are being held liable for the actions of their drivers under the regulations.

“We’ll treat it just like we treat seat belt usage,” Pritchett says. “If a driver gets caught not wearing his or her seat belt, we’ll cut back the available engine speed on their truck. And if there’s something that gets a driver’s attention, it’s speed restrictions on their vehicles.” Technology is also playing a big role in terms of enforcing the cell phone ban, with many providers of truck-based communication systems adding “blocking” controls to their products, automatically disabling them while a commercial vehicle is in motion.“We recognize that fleet managers need to accurately monitor driver behavior behind the wheel and understand that dedicated adherence to safety is what keeps fleets on the road,” explains Norm Ellis, vice president-sales, services and marketing for Qualcomm Enterprise Services.

During the company’s Vision 2012 biennial customer conference last June, Ellis pointed out that the company’s MCP110 and MCP200 in-cab communication devices are equipped with the proprietary In-Motion user interface that prevents drivers from using those devices while the vehicle is in motion.

“Drivers don’t like when the MCP110 in their truck doesn’t work when they are rolling down the road, but I like it,” notes Chris Callis, maintenance manager for Beacon Transport. “I am hoping similar technology can be deployed to block cell phones the same way.”