In the last year, states across the national have enacted laws limiting use of cell phones and electronic devices behind the wheel. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia ban texting while driving. Nine states and the District of Columbia also ban handheld cell phone use. These laws, targeted at drivers of regular vehicles and commercial vehicles alike, have sought to increase safety on the roadways that are becoming increasingly dangerous due to distracted driving.
In September 2010, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) banned text messaging for all commercial vehicle operators. A few months later, in December, the FMCSA proposed to ban all handheld cell phone use by commercial drivers. (The final ruling on that proposal is expected later this fall.)
But the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) thinks that this might not be enough. Following a hearing last week about a tractor-trailer accident in March 2010 that killed 11 people, the NTSB unanimously recommended that the federal government ban commercial drivers from all cell phone use when behind the wheel.
On March 26, 2010, a tractor-trailer was on Interstate 65 in Kentucky, near Munford. The large truck crossed over the line and collided head-on with a passenger van. The accident killed 11 people, including the truck driver. The investigation into the fatal truck accident revealed that the truck driver had been dialing his cell phone as his truck drifted over the middle line. In the 24 hours before the crash, the driver had placed and received 69 calls and texts.
This tragedy, coupled with the growing dangers of distracted driving across the nation, lead the NTSB to recommend stricter measures.
“Texting or talking on the phone while driving can turn deadly in a matter of seconds, particularly when a big rig or a bus is involved. There is no call or text message that is worth risking lives,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
The NTSB recognizes that most truckers will not support the recommendation, but NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman likens the drastic measure to the initial efforts made by transportation regulators to require people to wear seat belts. Such measures were often met with resistance, but slowly were adopted and eventually became laws.
The American Trucking Associations supported the FMCSA’s ban of handheld phones and texting while driving, but the group has not taken a position on banning hands-free cell phone use.
Safety studies have shown mixed results. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, laws in California, Connecticut, New York and Washington D.C. banning handheld cell phone use have not shown conclusive safety results. In fact, in many of those states, crash rates were not reduced at all after the bans.
Banning cell phone use might actually cause more problems, as drivers would strive to find ways around the law that might prove even more dangerous. While no one knows exactly what will happen with the recommendation, all drivers need to be aware of the dangers of distracted driving, and keep an eye out for truck drivers using cell phones while behind the wheel.
Source: USA Today, “Safety board: Ban cellphone use by truckers,” 9/14/11.