Hands-free, too? FMCSA interest goes beyond hand-held phones

| 12/21/2010

A notice of proposed rulemaking issued by the FMCSA targets the use of hand-held cell phones by commercial drivers. That, we know. But within the proposal is a request for public comments about a possible future ban on hands-free communications as well.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration filed its notice of proposed rulemaking, also known as an NPRM, on Tuesday, Dec. 21. As proposed, the NPRM lays groundwork to ban the use of hand-held use of cell phones while driving for commercial operators. Earlier this year, the agency issued a final rule to ban the specific act of texting while driving a CMV.

The latest proposal is an indication of how deep into the issue of distracted driving the agency is willing to tread.

The proposal is not yet a final rule, and the outcome can still be shaped. That’s precisely what OOIDA leadership and membership have a chance to do during a 60-day public comment period, which ends Feb. 22, 2011.

“It makes it illegal to reach for your phone,” OOIDA Director of Regulatory Affairs Joe Rajkovacz pointed out Monday on Land Line Now.

“That is a form of a thought crime. It’s very arbitrary and capricious. It opens up potential abuse on the part of law enforcement to use that as an ‘I gotcha’ against a driver. … The law needs to be much more specific than that. They need to do a much better job in the final rulemaking in dealing with that.”

Also key within the NPRM is language by FMCSA – think of it as a fishing expedition – that solicits public comments about the possibility of an outright ban on all cell phone use for commercial drivers, including hands-free.

“We are requesting comments on whether to propose a complete prohibition on mobile telephone use by drivers of CMVs,” FMCSA regulators stated in the NPRM document.

That one, Rajkovacz said, is sure to draw some comments from truckers.

“At 2 in the morning, as you’re driving through the night, having a conversation with somebody is a form of caffeine. It actually keeps you alert. And that’s one of the things we’ll be commenting to with FMCSA. They’re asking questions about the possibility of sometime in the future, perhaps banning cell-phone use altogether.”

Federal agencies have relied on studies to back up their points. FMCSA regulators cite a Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that shows texting while driving increases the risk of a crash or a near crash.

“However, it is not clear if simply talking on a mobile telephone presents a significant risk,” FMCSA regulators stated in the NPRM.

“For example, the same (Virginia Tech) study that detailed the risks of reaching and dialing found that ‘talking or listening to a hands-free phone’ and ‘talking or listening to a hand-held phone’' were relatively low-risk activities and had only brief periods of eyes off forward roadway. It is the action of taking one’s eyes off the forward roadway to reach for and dial the mobile telephone that is highly risky.”

OOIDA helped shape the FMCSA’s final rule on texting earlier this year, by saying truckers should be able to use smart phones for GPS navigation. The Association is hoping to offer additional points on the issues of hands-free, hand-held and push-to-talk technologies.

“The question of push-to-talk is going to be broached. (FMCSA is) asking questions here. They’re also using the NPRM to look into the future of what they may or may not want to ban in the future in terms of onboard communications technology that drivers could eventually be using.”

Once the public comment period ends, the FMCSA will draft a final rule and undergo another round of public comments. Rajkovacz says don’t wait if you want to make comments on the proposal.

“This is the time to make your comments, at the time of a notice of proposed rulemaking,” he said.

Comments are being accepted in writing, by fax or on the Web as follows:

Docket Management Facility (M-30)
U.S. Department of Transportation
West Building Ground Floor, Room W12-140
1200 New Jersey Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20590-0001
Fax: 202-493-2221
regulations.gov Follow the link to the NPRM and click the “submit a comment” button to fill out a form and submit your comments. You can submit comments anonymously.

FMCSA has issued a list of questions or points the agency would like to receive public feedback about. The following list is copied directly from the NPRM language:

  • Should the agency completely restrict all mobile telephone use, both hand-held and hands-free, by CMV drivers while driving in interstate commerce?
  • Should some CMV drivers, for example, drivers of passenger-carrying vehicles or of vehicles carrying hazardous materials, be more restricted than other CMV drivers?
  • Some motor vehicle design guidelines suggest limiting the time that a visual or a visual-manual task takes the driver’s eyes off of the forward roadway when designing vehicle controls. Should the agency define a time limit for CMV drivers’ interaction with mobile telephones (either hand-held, hands-free, or both)?
  • Should the agency propose limiting the number of keystrokes or button pushes that a CMV driver is allowed within a certain time frame when using a mobile telephone (either hand-held, hands-free, or both)? Should dialing be defined as a specific number of keystrokes or button pushes such as at least seven keystrokes or button pushes?
  • Are there technologies available or soon to be available that would allow completely hands-free mobile telephone operation by CMV drivers? Please provide any information on the availability and costs of such technologies. The agency also requests comments regarding the amount of time and steps that are required by the driver to initiate and then conduct a hands-free mobile telephone conversation with such devices.
  • The agency has proposed a definition for “use of a hand-held mobile telephone” in the regulatory text. The agency requests comments on this definition as well as the public’s views on whether to include a description of allowable alternatives to “use of a hand-held mobile telephone,” such as hands-free technologies.
  • FMCSA seeks comment on its assumptions on states’ costs, any increase in enforcement costs to the states, or any other costs or increases borne by the states.

Land Line Now Host Mark Reddig contributed to this report