DOT Agencies Ban Hand-Held Phone Use by Commercial Drivers

The final rule takes effect Jan. 3. It does not ban hands-free phone use.

Two DOT agencies, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, published a final rule Dec. 2 that will prohibit use of hand-held mobile phones by commercial drivers while on the road. Although both the National Transportation Safety Board and FMCSA’s Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee recommended a rule to ban CMV drivers' use of hands-free mobile phones, as well, the agencies did not go that far.

“It is not clear,” their rule states, “if simply talking on a mobile telephone presents a significant risk while driving. For example, Olson, et al. (2009) detailed the risks of reaching for and dialing a phone while driving and found that ‘talking or listening to a hands-free phone’ and ‘talking or listening to a hand-held phone’ were relatively low-risk activities that involved only brief periods of eyes off the forward roadway. FMCSA and PHMSA determine that it is the action of taking one's eyes off the forward roadway to reach for and dial a hand-held mobile telephone … that has the greatest risk.” (The cited study is Olson, R.L., Hanowski, R.J., Hickman, J.S., & Bocanegra, J. (2009), Driver distraction in commercial vehicle operations, Document No. FMCSA-RRR-09-042, in the rulemaking docket -- FMCSA-2010-0096-0016 –- at

Drivers who violate the restriction can be charged a civil penalty of as much as $2,750; a civil penalty of as much as $11,000 can be imposed on employers who fail to require their drivers to comply.

The rule says the odds of being involved in a safety-critical event are three times greater when the driver is reaching for an object than when he or she is not reaching for an object, and the odds are six times greater while the driver is dialing a cell phone than when the driver is not dialing a cell phone. These higher risks, it says, “are primarily attributable to the driver's eyes being off the forward roadway.”

The rule will prevent a source of distraction for the drivers, according to the agencies. “Both reaching for and dialing a hand-held mobile telephone are manual distractions and require visual distraction to complete the task; therefore, the driver may not be capable of safely operating the vehicle,” it states. “Using a hand-held mobile telephone may reduce a driver's situational awareness, decision making, or performance; and it may result in a crash, near-crash, unintended lane departure by the driver, or other unsafe driving action. Indeed, research indicates that reaching for and dialing hand-held mobile telephones are sources of driver distraction that pose a specific safety risk. To address the risk associated with these activities, the Agencies restrict CMV drivers' use of hand-held mobile telephones, which includes ‘using at least one hand to hold a mobile telephone to conduct a voice communication.’”

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