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December 13, 2011

Hand-Held Phones Banned

Beginning January 1, it will be illegal for truck and bus drivers to use handheld devices while driving. Doing so – and getting caught – means big fines and license suspension. It also means fines for the trucking company employing the driver.

The joint rule by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is the latest move by the Department of Transportation to ban driver distraction and the potential safety risk from activities that detract from a driver’s ability to recognize potential accidents and respond promptly to avoid them.

The rule allows driver penalties of up to $2,750 for the first offense. A subsequent offence calls for commercial driver license suspension for 60 days, so drivers have to be very conscious of the high costs of using any handheld device – a cell phone in particular  – from the start of the new year.

Commercial truck and bus companies who allow drivers to use hand-held cell phones while driving face fines of up to $11,000, so the course of action for every company involved in commercial transport is clear: Develop, publish and communicate a policy that clearly tells drivers not to use hand-held devices – especially phones – while the vehicle is in motion. If as a manager, you’re not comfortable with drafting such a policy, go to one of the publishers such as J.J.  Keller & Associates for a suitable notice.

For many smaller companies the cell phone and its texting ability are a convenient and inexpensive way to dispatch drivers. None of this has to stop, but dispatchers and driver managers have to be aware of the consequences. They can be directed to ensure that communications are made only when the vehicle is stopped. Instruct drivers to let messages go to voicemail until they can be dealt with when they are not driving. Similarly, driver should ignore texts until the truck is parked. I foresee this may not happen, but for sure, a driver shouldn’t be responding to a text message – even acknowledging receipt – until the truck is parked and the brakes are set.

All of this is around the use of hand-held devices, of course. The use of a hands-free cellphone is still permitted or even encouraged.

It was interesting to see a recent news release from Volvo that all its heavy trucks will be equipped with a Bluetooth enabled radio that interfaces with the in-dash driver display. This radio also features voice recognition through a highly sensitive microphone mounted in the overhead console, and full audio delivered through the truck’s speaker system.

“While the Bluetooth system utilizes the highly visible Driver Information Display, our unique integrated system prioritizes critical driver messages, like active safety alerts or vehicle operational warnings,” says Frank Bio, Volvo Trucks product manager – trucks. “The information hierarchy we’ve developed and integrated into our trucks means phone calls will not impede drivers from receiving the vital information they need about their vehicles or driving conditions.  The system extends the phone’s features, such as answering the phone by pushing one button, as required in the regulation.”

In addition to the Bluetooth mobile phone system, the radio features AM, FM, CD and MP3 capabilities, accessible through an auxiliary and USB connector installed in a dash switch location.

While the hand-held devices ban addresses the hazards of phoning or texting while driving, it does not address the “cognitive” distraction of trying to talk while driving. I have used this argument, only to be asked why it is any different than talking to a passenger sitting beside the driver. I have only my experience to guide me, but I find telephone conversations very much more demanding than idle chat in the cab.

I support the ban. It has to make the highways safer. And a caution to the users of hands-free: Use only when the traffic situation allows.

Now if we can only be as rigorous with our teenagers. I will be spending the Holidays with family, one of whom is driving a new car after her Lexus was totaled by a teenager glancing down to read a text on his cell phone and running full-tilt into the back of her car. Even though she’ll be spending the time in a neck brace, at least she will be making it to the family gathering.

And I trust you all will too. Have a happy and safe holidays.


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