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How Far Will Cell Phone Bans Go?

The federal government means business with its new law banning cell phone use while driving commercial vehicles. Can the laws go even further, and how should fleets react?

State bans on using cell phones to talk and text while driving are becoming ubiquitous, but the low cost of a ticket and spotty enforcement mean that many drivers are simply ignoring them. If you’re a fleet using commercial vehicles, however, life got a whole lot stricter on Jan 1. That’s when a new federal law went into effect that makes it illegal to use handheld cell phones while driving commercial vehicles.

The government means business on this — drivers caught violating the law will face federal civil penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense, disqualification from driving a commercial vehicle and possible suspension of their commercial driver’s license for serious offenses.

It’s even stiffer on the company — for the third offense the fleet will face the possibility of an $11,000 fine. What’s more, these offenses will count against a company’s CSA (Compliance, Safety, Accountability) BASIC Score, which is a key criteria in getting hired to haul.

Fleets are paying attention. “They are now forced to think about this as a practical component of their fleet operation because the violations pertaining to the ban will filter through to their BASIC score,” says Matt Howard, CEO and co-founder of Zoomsafer, a company that provides software to prevent distracted driving. “Most companies take CSA scores and regulations pretty seriously.” Howard has seen a spike in inbound traffic on his company’s website of 300% in the rule’s first month and 650 companies requesting info in the first week of January alone.

Are your fleet and drivers affected by the new rule? If your company has a USDOT number, which means you haul passengers or cargo between states, you must follow the law. That means the law applies to some 4 million U.S. drivers in total, a lot more than what we consider the trucking industry.

Enforcement may be trickier, or is it? Howard’s research reveals a coordinated training and policing effort between federal DOT reps and state and local law enforcement. If you get pulled over for speeding on a highway, those same cops would probably be able to ticket you for a cell phone law violation.

This isn’t the end to cell phone-related legislation, as more states move toward a handheld ban for all drivers. But are we headed ultimately to an all-out ban on cell phone use in cars, including hands free? In Dec. 2011, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a recommendation to ban hands-free phones while driving. Imagine a world in which pharmaceutical sale reps can’t drive and talk using their Bluetooth earpieces or SYNC systems!

Illinois lawmakers, for instance, have introduced legislation to restrict cell phone use to hands-free only while driving. However, at least one lawmaker is considering introducing an all-out ban at the local level, in hopes that it becomes a positive influence for a statewide initiative down the road. Howard, for one, doesn’t think this type of law will happen. “It’s political theater that has zero chance of passing in any state,” he says.

Regardless of law, you need to be proactive regarding your company’s cell phone policy. You do have a policy, right? If you don’t, you’re behind the times. Howard’s statistics show that 72% of companies he’s surveyed have a policy in place and 61% of those that don’t have a policy intend to put one in place. In 2008 — not long ago — a National Safety Council statistic revealed that only 19% of companies had a cell-phone policy.

Why is a policy so important? You may have seen conflicting studies on whether cell phone bans reduce crashes and whether use of hands-free cell phones is safer than handheld, or equally as risky. But while those hard-to-get-at statistics will continually be open to debate, employer liability for employees’ behavior is well-established, as is the path to identifying a crash that was caused by distracted driving.

Nearly all new vehicles have event data recorders that reveal the vehicle’s speed, acceleration, braking or swerving at the time of the accident. Combine that data with cell phone records and plaintiffs have plenty of ammunition to determine fault for a crash.

Is this record gathering all too intrusive? “There is no expectation of privacy on cell phone transmissions through the open air,” says Phil Moser, vice president of Advanced Driver Training Services (ADTS). “Cell phone records are easy to get and subpoena.”

CONTINUED:  How Far Will Cell Phone Bans Go?
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Author Bio

Chris Brown

Executive Editor

Chris is the executive editor of Business Fleet Magazine and Auto Rental News. He covers all aspects of the fleet world.

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