September 27, 2010 8:45 AM, EDT

LaHood Announces Broadened Texting Ban Aimed at Intrastate Hazmat Truck Drivers

By Sean McNally, Senior Reporter

This story appears in the Sept. 27 print edition of Transport Topics.

WASHINGTON — Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood announced that the Obama administration intends to issue a broader ban on texting while driving aimed at closing a jurisdictional loophole involving intrastate haulers of hazardous materials.

“We’ve initiated a new rulemaking that will limit commercial truck drivers’ use of all electronic devices while transporting hazardous materials,” LaHood said here on Sept. 21 during his opening remarks at the second summit on distracted driving.

The rule, which will be proposed by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, will extend the ban on texting by commercial drivers to include intrastate haulers not subject to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s earlier ban.

Katie Thomson, counselor to LaHood, said the PHMSA rule “mirrors the FMCSA ban on texting but extends it to cover intrastate hazardous materials carriers that are not able to be regulated by FMCSA.”

By closing the loophole, the federal texting ban would apply to 1,490 intrastate hazmat carriers and roughly 11,920 drivers, according to Department of Transportation spokeswoman Olivia Alair.

LaHood also announced that the White House Office of Management and Budget approved the final texting ban on Sept. 17, but it had yet to formally appear in the Federal Register by press time.

Thomson said the final rule “reflects the latest research on distraction, and replaces the guidance document that was published earlier this year.”

As an interim measure, LaHood announced in January that FMCSA was reinterpreting a series of regulations in order to establish a de facto texting ban (click here for previous story).

LaHood told reporters that even with the ban in place, DOT was continuing to eye further limits on truckers using wireless devices.

“You can’t drive safely if you’re texting on a computer in a big truck or on a bus,” he said. “So we’re going to continue our efforts in rulemaking.”

A proposed rule limiting the use of cell phones by truck drivers is currently under review by the White House, and in the final texting rule, FMCSA said it was “considering a number of actions to combat distracted driving by [commercial] drivers.”

In the final texting rule, the agency said, while the use of cell phones and other electronic devices is outside the current regulation, “FMCSA will evaluate other aspects of distracted driving and consider future actions.”

Don Osterberg, senior vice president of safety and driver training with Schneider National Inc., said most fleets are taking a number of steps to reduce driver distractions.

For example, Schneider blanks out the screens for in-cab communications devices while the truck is in motion and never calls a driver when “we know the truck is moving.”

The company’s no-call policy includes not putting drivers’ cell-phone numbers in the dispatch file, Osterberg said.

UPS Inc. said in a statement during the summit that it has implemented a ban within its organization “on text and e-mail messaging while behind the wheel,” and the company “is reviewing a policy now that would comprehensively address the use of cell phones and smart phones.”

Prior to the summit, DOT announced that distracted driving-related crashes resulted in 5,474 deaths and 448,000 injuries in 2009, or roughly 16% of overall highway fatalities.

The percentage of distraction-related crashes has risen — climbing to 16% in 2009 from 10% in 2005 — even as overall fatalities fell to their lowest levels on record, DOT said.