Several sources, including reports from the Washington Post and the NBC Nightly News, have confirmed that the US government has officially prohibited semi-truck drivers and bus drivers from sending text messages while behind the wheel.
"We want the drivers of big rigs and buses and those who share the roads with them to be safe," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "This is an important safety step, and we will be taking more to eliminate the threat of distracted driving."
LaHood has made the effort to curtail driver distractions a centerpiece of his tenure as the nation’s top transportation official. Some saw his announcement as a step that might ultimately fuel a push to ban cellphone use by all drivers.
LaHood’s announcement followed a study released in July by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute that found that when truckers text, they are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or close call.
Also Tuesday, a group of senators unveiled legislation that seeks to bar all texting while driving.
"This is a giant step forward for safety on our roads, but we must do more," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said of LaHood’s action. "We need the administration to support our ban, which does the same thing for cars and mass transit that they are now doing for trucks and buses."
Although both houses of Congress are considering bills restricting texting and 19 states have banned the practice, LaHood said that existing rules on truckers and bus drivers give him the authority to issue the prohibition. LaHood said drivers of commercial vehicles caught texting could be fined up to $2,750.
Although many safety expert acknowledge the texting ban is a good first step, they are also pragmatic and understand that enforcement of the ban will be difficult.
Enforcement of LaHood’s ban is so problematic, however, that it might prove more symbolic than practical.
"The enforcement problem here is enormous," said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It’s not clear this is going to make any difference on the road in terms of crashes."
Safety experts have been pushing for a "no texting rule" for months. Distracted driving among truck drivers made the National Transportation Safety Board’s ("NTSBs") 2009 Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.
The NTSB was prompted by investigations into six fatal crashes involving bus drivers or young, inexperienced drivers, in which distraction caused the crash. It specifically wants the FMSCA to "prohibit cellular telephone use by commercial drivers of school buses and motorcoaches, except in emergencies."
Advocates’ petition points out that large commercial trucks are represented disproportionately in fatal crashes — representing about three percent of all motor vehicle registrations, but eight percent of all fatal motor vehicle crashes and 12 percent of all traffic fatalities each year.
Closely related to distractions is driver fatigue.
Driver fatigue is a particularly dangerous — and completely preventable — cause of trucking accidents. Nearly 15 years ago, the NTSB issued a report warning of truck driver fatigue dangers.
The NTSB found that trucker fatigue was a contributing factor in 30%-40% of all diesel truck accidents. The NTSB found that proper sleep patterns are imperative for truck driver safety. Truckers must get 8 hours of continuous sleep after driving for 10 hours or after being on duty for 15 hours for proper safety.
The NTSB just recently issued a warning that truck drivers should also be screened for a medical condition called sleep apnea.
Sleep apnea denies people the rest they need, and it has been found to be a factor in incident involving every transportation mode, NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said in letters.
I applaud Secretary LaHood for bringing attention to the growing problem of distracted driving and am hopeful that his agency will develop an effective way to enforce the new regulation. Driving an 80,000 tractor trailer covering hundreds of thousands of miles is an awesome responsibility. Truckers and trucking corporations must be vigilant about safety.
Brett Emison is currently a partner at Langdon & Emison, a firm dedicated to helping injured victims across the country from their primary office near Kansas City. Mainly focusing on catastrophic injury and death cases as well as complex mass tort and dangerous drug cases, Mr. Emison often deals with automotive defects, automobile crashes, railroad crossing accidents (train accidents), trucking accidents, dangerous and defective drugs, defective medical devices.