Federal safety officials parse enforcement of TV ban on in-cab laptops

| 6/6/2008

Only days after some truck drivers were warned and ticketed for having a laptop computer in-cab at an Arizona checkpoint, regulators in the highest levels of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration are scrambling to answer one controversial question:

Can commercial drivers have computer screens within view of their driver’s seats?

Last week, FMCSA spokesman Duane DeBruyne told Land Line Magazine that he doesn’t believe laptop computers fall under Section 393.88 of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations.

“The title of 393.88 is ‘television receivers,’ ” DeBruyne said. “Laptop computers are not television receivers; therefore, they are not prohibited by FMCSA regulations.”

Later in the week, Stephen Campbell, executive director of the non-profit Commercial Vehicle Safety Alliance told Land Line that FMCSA Administrator John Hill and others are working to issue guidance regarding the interpretation of Federal Safety Regulation 393.88, which is titled “television receivers” and specifically bans a “screen or other means of visually receiving a television broadcast” from being within the driver’s view.

“Clearly, what is intended by (393.88) is to prevent the driver from going down the road, watching ‘True Grit,’ ” Campbell said. “I think you would rightfully say no responsible driver would ever do that.”

Drivers that have laptops in their cabs may be tempted to type, check e-mail or do other tasks that inhibit safe driving, but it’s difficult to prove, Campbell said.

“And there might be some cops doing the same thing,” he said.

Land Line Magazine’s daily Web news article on Monday, June 2, detailed the May 25 citation issued to OOIDA member Gerald Cook, who was ticketed after an Arizona DOT officer saw a laptop mounted near Cook’s driver seat when he went through the Sam Simon Port of Entry scale house on Interstate 10. Another OOIDA member was warned for the same supposed violation, though that driver was not cited.

Since then, officials from Arizona’s DOT have requested an interpretation of 393.88 from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, state DOT Spokeswoman Cydney De Modica told Land Line.

“The question that’s given this some immediacy is what’s going on in Arizona,” Campbell said. “The regulatory guidance they’ve received seemed to indicate it could be enforced. If enforcement is carried to a level of ridiculousness, I think it could be a problem for motor carriers and enforcement as well.”

CVSA was scheduled to address the issue of laptop computers in cabs of big trucks at its September conference in Winnipeg, but the Arizona DOT’s request for a legal interpretation and other confusion about the rule has magnified the importance of the issue, Campbell said.

Several states have laws banning television viewing by vehicle drivers, although many allow driver aid technology such as GPS screens.

Section 393.88 of the FMCSR 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.”

De Modica said Arizona’s state inspectors have issued mostly warnings and a handful of citations for drivers with open laptops.

“There’s no high volume of these,” De Modica said.

OOIDA Member Tom Clarke, of McKinney, TX, uses a laptop he’s mounted near his driver’s seat for mapping. He uses voice-activated software combined with mapping systems on his laptop and said it’s as safe as a GPS system.

“It is a great tool (aid) to navigating,” Clarke wrote in an e-mail to Land Line. “In my opinion this is where technology helps reduce driver workload, which improves our margin of safety.

“I feel very strongly that commercial drivers should be allowed to continue to use these types of tools,” he wrote. “P.S. I must have a cheap computer; I can’t watch TV on it.”

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer