January 3, 2011 2:15 AM, EST

FMCSA Proposes Large Fines for Handheld Cell Phone Use

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Jan. 3 print edition of Transport Topics.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has proposed fines up to $2,750 for truckers who use a handheld cell phone while driving, as well as the possible suspension or revocation of a commercial license for repeated offenses.

The agency is accepting public comments on the proposal until Feb. 22.

“Every time a commercial truck or bus driver takes his or her eyes off the road to use a cell phone, even for a few seconds, the driver places everyone around them at risk,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. “This proposed rule will go a long way toward keeping a driver’s full attention focused on the road.”

“We are committed to using every resource at our disposal to ensure commercial drivers and vehicles are operating safely at all times,” FMCSA Administrator Anne Ferro said. “Implementation of this proposal would help make our roads safer and target a leading cause of distracted driving.”

The proposal would ban commercial drivers from “reaching for, holding or dialing a cell phone” while behind the wheel.

The rule also would apply to fleets, by prohibiting them “from requiring or allowing drivers [of commercial vehicles] to engage in the use of a handheld mobile telephone” while driving.

Fleets found in violation of this provision, FMCSA said, could face a maximum penalty of $11,000.

“ATA’s members are generally supportive of a ban on handheld cell phone use, and we’d like to see it extended to drivers of all vehicles,” said Rob Abbott, vice president of safety for American Trucking Associations.

However, he said ATA has some concerns with proposal, including that, even though it does not propose a ban on hands-free use, FMCSA could include it in a final rule. Abbott said a hands-free ban would be “problematic” because data show that simply talking on a hands-free phone can reduce the risk of a crash, compared with using a handheld phone.

Abbott also said ambiguity in FMCSA’s definition of dialing was a concern.

“They haven’t distinguished the risk of dialing a 10-digit number from push-to-talk or pushing a speed-dial number so that you can have that hands-free conversation,” he said, adding that ATA would discuss this point further in its comments.

Stephen Keppler, executive director of the Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance, said the law enforcement group supports the proposal.

“Generally speaking, anything that takes a driver’s attention away from the road is a bad thing,” he said. “I think FMCSA going forward and putting these proposals out makes sense.”

The proposal is the second one focused on curbing distracted driving. During 2010, FMCSA finished a regulation banning truck drivers from sending or reading text messages on a cell phone.

The agency is also in the process of examining other in-cab distractions for possible future regulations.