In an effort to reduce the number of truck and bus crashes caused by distracted drivers, the federal government formally barred truckers and bus drivers from sending text messages while behind the wheel, putting its imprimatur on a prohibition embraced by many large trucking and transportation companies.
"We want the drivers of big rigs and buses and those who share the roads with them to be safe," said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. "This is an important safety step, and we will be taking more to eliminate the threat of distracted driving."
LaHood has made the effort to curtail driver distractions a centerpiece of his tenure as the nation’s top transportation official. LaHood’s announcement followed a study published in July by Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute that found that when truckers text, they are 23 times more likely to be involved in a crash or close call.
Also Tuesday, a group of senators unveiled legislation that seeks to bar all texting while driving. "Although both houses of Congress are considering bills restricting texting and 19 states have banned the practice, LaHood said that existing rules on truckers and bus drivers give him the authority to issue the prohibition. LaHood said drivers of commercial vehicles caught texting could be fined up to $2,750. The question is whether the federal ban has any teeth.
Enforcement of LaHood’s ban is problematic and might prove more symbolic than practical. "The enforcement problem here is enormous," said Russ Rader of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "It’s not clear this is going to make any difference on the road in terms of crashes." Rader said the challenge for police officers is daunting. "How does anybody spot a trucker or any driver on the road who is using some device that they’re holding below window level?" Rader said.
Vernon Betkey, chairman of the GHSA and a retired Maryland State Police trooper, acknowledged the challenge and said he hoped federally funded demonstration projects in Connecticut and New York might develop better enforcement tools.
"Right now, law enforcement has to be somewhat creative," Betkey said. "A driver constantly looking down while they’re driving might be a clue, or you might have some lane departures."
Two weeks ago, the National Safety Council reported that 28 percent of traffic accidents occur when drivers are talking on cellphones or sending text messages. The nonprofit council said that texting was to blame for 200,000 of the crashes, while cellphone conversations caused 1.4 million. Those numbers come in the context of federal statistics that show that about 812,000 drivers are using cellphones at any given moment during daylight hours.
In announcing the ban Tuesday, LaHood pointed to data compiled by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration last year, which show that drivers who send and receive text messages take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds out of every six seconds while texting. At 55 mph, he said, that means that during that time, the driver travels the length of a football field, including the end zones, without looking at the road.