Arizona cops say passenger seat laptops violate FMCSA’s TV ban

| 6/2/2008

Gerald Cook watched the Arizona DOT officer open his handbook to a dog-eared page toward the back. The words “television receiver” and an entire paragraph of text were highlighted.

Minutes earlier on Sunday, May 25, Cook had pulled into Arizona’s Sam Simon Port of Entry scale house while traveling westbound on Interstate 10. The Arizona Department of Transportation officer questioned Cook about the laptop computer mounted in the front of his cab.

Surely the officer wasn’t busting Cook for the computer that hundreds of inspection officers had seen before, mounted near his driver’s seat in his 2005 Peterbilt 379.

The computer allows Cook to check e-mail messages from dispatchers and home and, more importantly, allows him to quickly and accurately enter hours-of-service data into his logbook software.

“He told me (the computer) couldn’t be within my reach from my driving position,” Cook said. “That negates doing my logbook on the laptop.”

Staff in OOIDA’s Member Assistance Department said two Association members called Tuesday, May 27, regarding Arizona DOT officers at the Sam Simon Port of Entry. The incidents reported in Tuesday’s calls were the first known interpretations of federal law to single out laptop computers.

Several states prohibit all drivers – commercial and non-commercial – from viewing television or movies, but some of those states exempt driver-aid technology such as GPS mapping systems.

After a few minutes, the officer told Cook he was being cited for violating a federal safety regulation that prohibits trucks from having “television” screens within the view of drivers.

The officer told him the ticket could cost $450.

Cook, who said his laptop was closed and in sleep mode, was stunned.

“I’ve never had anybody say anything about it before – it kind of caught me by surprise,” Cook told Land Line. “He said, ‘With the Internet, you can play movies.’ I told him, ‘Have you ever seen a cop car with a laptop? They’re on at all times.’ ”

Arizona officials are interpreting that laptop computers are covered by a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulation that was originally designed to prevent television viewing by commercial drivers, said Cydney De Modica, an Arizona DOT spokeswoman.

“Although in general, laptops are used for obtaining current information about road conditions, closures and restrictions, advancing technology does allow the devices to be used as a television receiver, which is, the prohibition under which the driver was cited under 393.88,” De Modica told Land Line. “We all are aware that laptop capability and computer capability is advancing and changing on a regular basis.”

The FMCSRs ban television viewing by drivers with rule 393.88, which states:

“Any motor vehicle equipped with a television viewer, screen or other means of visually receiving a television broadcast shall have the viewer or screen located in the motor vehicle at a point to the rear of the back of the driver’s seat if such viewer or screen is in the same compartment as the driver and the viewer or screen shall be so located as not to be visible to the driver, while he/she is driving the motor vehicle. The operating controls for the television receiver shall be so located that the driver cannot operate them without leaving the driver’s seat.”

Arizona DOT officers issue citations only if a driver has a laptop open, and is typing or working on it while truck wheels are rolling, said De Modica, who wouldn’t comment specifically on Cook’s citation. The decision to include laptops was made to head off what Arizona inspectors see as a troubling trend among a few drivers, she said.

“Over the past year, we’re beginning to see more and more use of onboard technology in the form of laptops,” De Modica said. “We have even seen people in the process of actively engaging in communication on a chat line.”

Cook said the relatively new interpretation of an old regulation serves one purpose:

“It’s a money grab,” Cook said.

The five-year driver said he’ll challenge the interpretation of the federal law.

“I’ll fight it until every cop car in the country doesn’t have a laptop in it,” Cook said. “My laptop is staying right where it is.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer