Texting While Driving Bans: Should Truckers Be Exempt?

By  Susan Nunziata — September 28, 2009

There's no doubt in anyone's mind that a teen careening down the road while sending text messages on a mobile device is a deadly idea. Equally dangerous is a keyed up sales executive doing 90 MPH while sending or reading email on a BlackBerry in hopes of closing a deal before arriving at the next appointment.

But, as the number of statewide texting-while-driving bans continue to mount, we have to consider how these bans will impact the work-altering technology that many mobile enterprises are busily embracing.

For example, how are law enforcement officers or first responders expected to behave when they've come to rely on laptops or other wireless devices that are running mission-critical applications? Do they avoid using these devices while driving, or are they exempted? Are delivery or service personnel really expected to refrain from using their wireless devices -- which are arguably easier to see and manipulate than the typical cell phone -- while behind the wheel?

An article in the Sept. 28 New York Times raises these questions about long-haul truckers (and their supervisors), many of whom have come to rely on tools such as routing and fleet management applications.

Some of the questions will likely be tackled this week, as trade organizations, university researchers and others gather in Washington, D.C., Sept. 30, 2009, to begin a two-day Distracted Driving Summit hosted by the United States Dept. of Transportation.

The use of cell phones and texting while driving are expected to loom large at the event, which has a panel discussion devoted to the topic of "Technology and Distracted Driving."

A recent New York Times/CBS News poll finds that 90% of adults say sending a text message while driving should be illegal.

One industry organization participating in the Distracted Driving Summit is the American Trucking Association (ATA), which is advocating for policies that would minimize driver distraction even as it seeks to protect truckers who have embraced wireless laptops and other mobile technology.

Since October 2008, ATA says it has advocated for policies that would minimize or eliminate driver distraction caused by using electronic devices while operating any type of motor vehicle. ATA's safety agenda explains that electronic communication devices hinder driver performance by taking the driver's eyes off the road. Drivers may become so absorbed in a text message that their ability to concentrate on driving is impaired.

ATA also says it supports the safety objectives in the "Avoiding Life-Endangering and Reckless Texting (ALERT) by Drivers Act of 2009." The bill, introduced July 29, 2009, by U.S. Sens. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), Mary Landrieu (D-La.), and Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), encourages states to ban texting while operating a motor vehicle.

The bill requires all states to ban, within two years of the bill's passage, the writing, sending or reading of text messages using a hand-held mobile telephone or other portable electronic communication device. States that do not comply with the legislation risk losing 25 percent of their annual federal highway funding.

While an ATA statement says the organization supports the objectives of the proposed legislation, it adds that ATA will work to ensure that the bill does not inadvertently require states to outlaw the use of truck cab fleet management systems that provide limited but necessary cargo-related information to professional drivers.
 
The article in The New York Times discusses the risks faced by truckers using onboard computers for route accounting and other purposes. One driver was involved in an accident when he took his eyes off the road to reach for a cup of coffee. He tells the Times that the lesson is that drivers need to be careful not to get distracted, particularly when they use electronic devices.

"I guarantee if you're not an ace on that keyboard, you've got to look to find them letters," the driver says in the New York Times article. "Sometimes, it takes a lot longer to find a letter on that keyboard than it does to get a cup of coffee."
 
Indeed, a study earlier this year by the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found that for drivers of heavy vehicles and trucks:

  • Use of, or reach for, an electronic device made the risk of crash or near-crash event 6.7 times as high as non-distracted driving; and
  • Text messaging made the risk of crash or near-crash event 23.2 times as high as non-distracted driving.
Meanwhile, California's ban on texting while driving already appears to be reducing the practice on the roads, according to a report released Sept. 25, 2009 by The Auto Club of Southern California.

Prior to the California texting-while-driving ban, researchers observed 1.4% of drivers at any point in time in Orange County, Calif. were texting while driving.

Following the law taking effect, just 0.4% of drivers were observed texting -- a decline of about 70% overall.

This indicates that banning texting while driving can potentially change driving behavior of motorists, reduce dangerous distracted driving, and improve safety, according to the Automobile Association of America (AAA).

The popularity of texting has grown quickly over the past four years. According to the wireless industry trade association, CTIA, the number of monthly texting messages reached 110 billion at the end of 2008, a more than 11-fold increase in three years.

The AAA Foundation and AAA are calling on all drivers to pledge their participation in Heads Up Driving Week spanning Monday, Oct. 5 through Sunday, Oct. 11. The effort is part of AAA's campaign to pass texting while driving bans in all 50 states by 2013.

By participating, drivers vow to eliminate distractions behind the wheel and sign a pledge committing to distraction-free driving for Heads Up Driving Week and beyond.

Related Articles:
TWD Up8t: R U Ready For National Ban?

Truck Drivers Take Note: Dangers Of Texting "In Its Own Universe"

Deadly Distraction: 14 States Now Ban Texting While Driving

Pet Peeves & True Confessions: What Do You Do With Your Mobile Device?

How Many Drivers Admit To Texting Behind The Wheel?

LA Train Crash Raises Questions About Enterprise Text-Messaging Policies

See The Poll Results: What's Your Enterprise Policy About Texting While Driving?



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