Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Planning to use your cell phone & drive a commercial vehicle? Think again!

Talking and texting on handheld devices in motor vehicles continues to gather a large amount of media and highway safety attention. While actions such as the National Transportation Safety Board's recent recommendation that there be a nationwide ban on the nonemergency use of portable electronic devices (including both handheld and hands-free cell phones) and US Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood's ongoing campaign against all forms of distracted driving have attracted the most widespread attention, other actions more directly affect the operations of public and human services transportation.

Most recently, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) issued a final rule restricting the use of cell phones by operators of commercial motor vehicles. This rule was published on December 2, 2011, and takes effect January 3, 2012.

At its core, this rule is very straightforward: drivers of commercial motor vehicles are prohibited from using handheld mobile telephones while driving the vehicle, except in emergency situations. Motor carriers (i.e., the companies and entities employing drivers of commercial motor vehicles) are prohibited from allowing or requiring their drivers to use handheld mobile telephones while driving, except in emergencies. States are to adopt laws or ordinances that are consistent with this restriction. Drivers found to have repeated violations of this restriction will face suspensions of their commercial drivers licenses (CDLs).

Note that FMCSA already has a regulatory restriction against "texting" while driving a commercial motor vehicle. The December 2 rulemaking modifies a couple of small aspects of the texting restriction to help it confirm to the handheld mobile phone restriction. Although there has been much discussion, and forays into highway safety data, about broadening the scope of these rules, no further action has been taken by FMCSA to date. Their restrictions currently apply only to texting on mobile communication devices while driving, and using handheld mobile telephones while driving. However, many agencies and employers, and even some states, have more extensive restrictions on the use of mobile devices while driving.

Of course, even though the nature of this rule is fairly simple, its applicability to public transportation and to the various forms of human services transportation becomes much more murky. A few general tips are below, but if you're concerned about compliance, the most important steps are to contact your state's motor carrier safety agency (typically housed within your state DOT) or your state's FMCSA office.

For providers of public or human services transportation, it would appear you MUST comply with the FMCSA restrictions on using handheld mobile phones if:

You are operating a motor vehicle for which federal law requires the driver to hold a CDL and this vehicle is used for interstate transportation (of course, most states have near-identical requirements for intrastate transportation), or
You are operating a vehicle designed to seat between 9 and 15 passengers (including the driver) in interstate transportation for which you are compensated, whether through passenger fares, contracts, grants, etc. (again, most states have near-identical requirements for intrastate transportation).

Because FMCSA's regulatory authority extends only to activities of interstate commerce, it would appear the FMCSA restriction on handheld mobile phones and texting do not apply to drivers of motor vehicles who are the direct employees of units of federal, state or local government. However, it's entirely possible that drivers who work for state or local government, and the agencies employing them, are covered under individual states' motor carrier safety regulations, including restrictions on the use of handheld phones and mobile texting devices. Moreover, the FMCSA "governmental" exclusion cannot be extended to the contractors or grantees of federal, state or local government, nor to nongovernmental private entities created by the action of state or local government.

As a final reminder, neither these nor most other FMCSA regulations apply to the operation of vehicles designed to seat 8 or fewer passengers, even when interstate in nature.

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