A new federal rule that bans truckers and bus drivers from using handheld cellphones took effect Tuesday, triggering the prospect of thousands of dollars in fines for drivers caught using their mobile phones.
The ban announced in late November calls for penalties of up to $2,750 against drivers caught talking on their handheld phones, and fines as high as $11,000 against their employers.
"When drivers of large trucks, buses and hazardous materials take their eyes off the road for even a few seconds, the outcome can be deadly," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a news release.
The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said its rule is designed to cut back on distracted driving, which caused nearly 5,500 deaths and 500,000 injuries in 2009 -- even though the agency admitted that studies to determine the culpability of cellphones in those accidents "have produced mixed results."
"It is not clear if simply talking on a mobile telephone presents a significant risk," the agency conceded, though it maintained that reaching for a cellphone or dialing a number could represent "risk-increasing tasks."
But for many of the 4 million truck drivers who often drive for days without seeing friends and family, cellphones seem no more distracting than the various other devices in the cab, including some that are mandated by federal regulators.
These include "anti-rollover devices, collision warning systems, tire pressure alerts, lane departure devices," CB radios, GPS navigation, and speed-limiting technology, which relies on "bells, lights, sounds and haptic sensations," the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association wrote in a response to the rule.
"Every time they make a new law, they always implement it with truckers first to see how it goes," said driver Mike Morris.
For smaller companies in which drivers often use cell phones to communicate with customers instead of more expensive fleet management computers, the cell phone ban could be disastrous, Morris said.
"Some people need their cell phones to do business," he said.
On the other hand, larger companies like Chattanooga-based Covenant Transport and U.S. Xpress have restricted cell phone use for years.
They communicate with drivers through in-vehicle systems that won't deliver a message until the truck is stopped.
"There's 80,000 tons of metal hurtling down the road, so we want no distractions," said Mark Pare, senior vice president for sales and marketing at Covenant. "They've put enough teeth in this, it's pretty obvious the guys will fall in line."
In addition, the new rule doesn't forbid hands-free devices such as Bluetooth headsets, which most drivers already use, Pare said.
U.S. Xpress, which banned handheld cell phone use among drivers more than five years ago, also allows drivers to use a headset, company public relations manager Greg Thompson said.
"We allow people to use hands-free, but we encourage them to limit that use," Thompson said.
Drivers Randall Bowlden and Randy Walker, who carry their Bluetooth headsets with them everywhere, said they welcomed the rule -- but they don't understand why it applies only to truckers.
"I think it's a good rule, but I think they need to do it for cars, too," Walker said.
What's good for the goose is good for the gander, added Bowlden.
"Nine out of 10 policemen you pass have that phone right up to their ear," he said.
The American Trucking Associations also supports the ban, though Rob Abbott, vice president of safety, questioned some of the rules' specifics, like limiting how truckers dial numbers, or how far they can reach to grab a device.
"You can extend your reach to grab a bag of french fries, but you can't extend your arm to grab your cell phone," he said. "There is no similar prohibition with a Big Mac."