"We'll work with the industry on this," said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, but he made it clear that he wants to reduce driver distractions, including onboard computers and hands-free cell phones, as much as possible.
He also said he believes the trucking industry will cooperate. "Look, they get it," he said. "They know it's bad for their drivers. I think we're going to have good collaboration from these groups."
LaHood acknowledged that the rulemaking process takes a long time, but he wants the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration to begin "soon."
In a related move, President Obama signed an Executive Order that prohibits federal employees from text messaging while they are driving government vehicles. The ban extends to government communications equipment while driving, or texting while driving in a personal vehicle on government business. The order also encourages federal contractors and anyone doing business with the government to adopt a texting ban.
LaHood made the announcement at the close of a two-day national summit on distracted driving, which he and others described as an epidemic that is costing thousands of lives a year.
Immediate reaction from the leading industry trade group, American Trucking Associations, was supportive in principle if not in detail. ATA looks forward to working with DOT on reasonable restrictions on texting and the use of other communications devices, said Dave Osiecki, vice president of safety, security and operations.
He said ATA members will take up the issue next week at the association's annual convention in Las Vegas. ATA's current policy supports safe use of in-cab technologies and calls on carriers to minimize or eliminate distractions caused by cell phones or other devices.
Some Companies Already Restrict Use
A number of carriers already ban cell phones altogether when the truck is moving.
Don Osterberg, vice president for safety and driver training at Schneider National, said his company prohibits both hand-held and hands-free cell phones. Violation is grounds for termination, he said. He added that he'd like to have technology that detects cell phone use electronically, perhaps setting off a dashboard signal or turning off cruise control.
Schneider uses a Qualcomm communications system that emits an audible beep to tell the driver he has a message. The onboard computer registers a short written note, but the full message cannot be read until the truck has been pulled over, Osterberg said.
Another large carrier, NFI, also prohibits cell phones, both hand-held and hands-free. Safety Director Lee Rebledo said the company must rely on phone complaints from passing motorists to learn about a driver using a cell, but that violations lead to warnings and possibly termination.
NFI instituted the ban two and a half years ago in response to the risk from increasing use of cell phones. "It was the right thing to do," Rebledo said.
FMCSA is "absolutely" on the right track with a cell phone ban, he said. "You're operating such a heavy piece of machinery that takes longer to stop and takes more skill to manage - you've got to be paying 100 percent attention, you can't be talking to your friends, family or dispatch on the phone while driving that tractor trailer."
NFI uses Qualcomm's Omnivision system, which provides audible messaging. "You cannot type or read the screen while the truck is in motion," he said. "We don't want (drivers) to take their eyes off the road."
Rebledo did not have hard quantitative proof of improved safety from the ban but did say that his drivers have had few rear-end collisions since it went into effect.
Nationally, the risk data on distracted driving are compelling. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, nearly 6,000 people died in 2008 in crashes involving a distracted driver. Not all of these incidents necessarily involved a cell phone - there are many other kinds of distractions - but NHTSA said that on any given day more than 800,000 drivers are using a hand-held cell phone.
The data presented at the summit made it clear that texting while driving is an utterly reckless act - FMCSA should have little difficulty justifying a ban. But the agency may find it harder to figure out how to restrict cell phone use.
Tom Dingus, director of the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute, discussed an in-depth analysis of data collected from trucks on the road. The data backs up the common-sense observation that risk goes up when a driver splits his attention between driving and some other task, particularly one that requires him to look away from the road.
The more complex the task, the greater the risk: texting, for example, increases risk of a "critical safety event" more than 23 times, and using a dispatching device increases risk by almost 10 times. Looking at a map increases risk by seven times. Dialing a cell phone number increases risk by almost six times, and simply reaching for a phone or some other device increases risk by almost seven times.
Dingus's analysis weighs these risks against the frequency of the action. Texting is exceptionally risky, but truck drivers don't do it very often, so the weighted risk is 0.7 times. On the other hand, drivers frequently reach for objects in the cab, so the weighted risk for that distraction is 7.6 times. The weighted risk of looking at a dispatching device is 3.1 times.
From this analysis Dingus concludes that there should be a primary law banning the use of hand-held wireless devices such as cell phones. He would, however, exempt from the ban true hands-free and in-vehicle devices that are simple to operate and do not take the driver's eyes off the road for long.
This law should have teeth, he said: a significant fine, and points on a driver's license. It also should also totally ban cell phones for newly licensed teens and in special cases like school buses. Emergency communications should be excluded.
Dingus also recommends a regulation that limits the functionality of devices that place high visual demands on the driver, such as keyboarding and complex reading. And, he'd like to see standards for testing potentially distracting devices before they are introduced to the market.
FMCSA published a report based on the Virginia Tech analysis that makes these recommendations to the industry:
• Fleet managers should educate drivers about need to avoid distraction, and develop policies that minimize or eliminate use of devices while driving.
• When driving, don't use dispatching devices, text, dial a cell phone, read, look at a map or write.
• Drivers should be allowed to talk on a CB while driving because it has not been found to increase risk.
• Suppliers of dispatch devices should develop more user-friendly interfaces that don't take the drivers' eyes off road - possibly a hands-free dispatching device, or a system that blocks the use of the device while the truck is in motion. Also, improve instrument panels so drivers can more easily keep their eyes on the road.
• The agency also called for more research on the protective effects of tasks that help keep drivers alert.
Much more is going to be said on the subject of distracted driving, not just in the trucking industry, but nationally. Congress will take up legislation that would cut federal highway funds to states that do not prohibit writing, sending, or reading text messages while driving. Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., told the summit that he would hold hearings on the bill. There remains considerable debate about how best to shape such legislation - whether, for example, it should be punitive or offer incentives to stat