The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration has chosen the middle path in its proposal to restrict cell phone use by commercial drivers.
The proposal essentially says that truck and bus drivers could only use a hands-free phone while driving. It would prohibit a driver from reaching for, dialing or holding a mobile phone while the truck is moving.
The agency came to this proposal after looking at three other options. One was to do nothing, which was not acceptable politically or in terms of safety, given research showing the risks of distracted driving. It also looked at banning all use of mobile phones, even hands-free devices, for all drivers and for just bus drivers.
The advice the agency got from the National Transportation Safety Board and from its own Motor Carrier Safety Advisory Committee was to ban even hands-free devices.
The agency concluded, though, that "it is not clear if simply talking on a mobile telephone presents a significant risk."
It cited a study by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that found the risk of simply talking on a phone is relatively low compared to the risk of taking one's eyes off the road or hands off the wheel to reach for or dial a phone.
The act of reaching for an object increases the risk of a safety-critical event by three times, the agency said, referencing the VTTI study. Dialing a cell phone increases the risk by six times - primarily because it takes the driver's eyes off the road.
"Because of the physical, manual, and visual distractions and the data indicating a safety risk associated with the use of hand-held mobile telephones, FMCSA believes it is in the interest of public safety to propose, at a minimum, a restriction on hand-held mobile telephone use while driving a CMV," the agency said in its proposal.
The agency clearly states that this proposal is not intended to restrict the driver's use of a mobile phone when not driving.
The agency also is proposing stiff penalties for violations of the rule. Civil fines could go up to $2,750 for each offense. Two violations of a state or local law against hand-held phones in a three-year period could lead to a 60-day suspension. Three violations could lead to a 120-day suspension.