On November 23, 2011, the U.S. Department of Transportation (“USDOT”) announced the final rule that prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-hand cell phones while operating vehicles. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) finalized the rule with the power of the USDOT . The FMCSA and PHMSA determined that the prohibition was necessary to prevent injuries and deaths caused by truck accidents. In 2009, there were 5,474 deaths and nearly 500,000 injuries caused by distracted drivers.
The final rule provides for federal civil penalties of up to $2,5750 each time a commercial truck driver is caught using a hand-held cell phone while driving. Companies that are found to be permissive in allowing their drivers to use hand-held cell phones face stiff fines up to $11,000. These penalties are in addition to state sanctions, including potential suspension of commercial driver’s license (“CDL”).
In Illinois, drivers of tractor trailers (and all drivers) are prohibited from using cell phones in construction zones and school zones. Furthermore, Illinois prohibits sending or reading text messages while driving, except in the following circumstances: (1) reporting an emergency, (2) using a hands-free device, (3) the vehicle is parked, or (4) stopped due to traffic and the vehicle is in park or neutral.
The Illinois law is most likely preempted by the USDOT’s final rule for truckers. Therefore, satisfying the exceptions found in the Illinois texting law will not likely work as a defense to the federal civil penalties announced by the USDOT.
The effect of the prohibition on commercial truck drivers’ use of hand-held cell phones is yet to be seen as the final rule only went into effect on January 2, 2012. However, many companies with large truck operations, such as UPS, Wal-Mart, and Greyhound currently utilize company policies prohibiting the use of hand-held cell phones.
Although the USDOT’s rule only prohibits “interstate” drivers, all commercial drivers should abide by the rule. Not only is it likely for most states to adopt the rule in the future, but refraining from using hand-held cell phones is arguably the industry standard. If a driver uses a hand-held cell phone and is involved in a truck accident, the use of a hand-held cell phone can be argued to be a deviation from the industry standard, thus, a deviation from the duty of care that the driver owed to fellow motorists.
To ensure that an accident results in proper economic compensation to the injured, discovery of company policies and safety guidelines is important. Commercial truck drivers can be employees, but many are independent contractors. If they are employees, the company will likely have written, formal company policies regarding cell phone usage. These policies should reflect the USDOT’s new standard, but they may not. Either way, the formal written policies should be sought by Plaintiff’s counsel in discovery. Lack of such policies can also be evidence of negligence, and policies which don’t reflect the new standard can be considered a deviation from the industry standard. Remember, truck accidents can cause serious, personal injuries that are costly and painful to the injured individual.