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March 29, 2012
Handheld Cell Phone Prohibition for Truckers Takes Effect; Hours-of-Service Restrictions Unchanged

The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has finalized some critical and wide-reaching regulations for commercial drivers. Under the new rules, truckers can continue to drive 11 hours a day but cannot use handheld cell phones when driving behind the wheel.

Changes to Hours of Service Rules

When truckers spend long hours on the road, their risks of fatigue-related crashes and long-term health problems increase dramatically.

The new rule seeks to ensure drivers adequate "down time" on both a daily and weekly basis by limiting the maximum number of hours per day and week they can work.

Under the old rule, truck drivers could work on average up to 82 hours within a seven-day period. The new hours-of-service (HOS) final rule limits a driver's workweek to 70 hours, mainly by restricting the use of the "restart provision" to once during each seven-day period. The restart provision allows drivers to restart the clock on their workweek by taking at least 34 consecutive hours off-duty. The new rule also requires truck drivers who maximize their weekly work hours in this way to take at least two nights' rest between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m. during those 34 hours.

In its original notice of the proposed rule, the DOT's Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) considered limiting drivers to 10 hours of daily driving time. However, after reviewing studies on the relationship between work hours and health and safety, the agency determined that no compelling scientific evidence demonstrates that a 10-hour driving limit provides a significant safety benefit over an 11-hour limit. In fact, the FMCSA found strong evidence that an 11-hour limit could well provide higher net benefits, which it defined as benefits (the reduction in crashes and improved driver health) less costs.

Trucking companies and drivers who exceed the 11-hour driving limit by three or more hours will commit an "egregious violation" of the rule. Employers may pay penalties of up to $11,000 per offense; drivers could face fines of up to $2,750 per offense.

The HOS rule was finalized on Dec. 22, 2011. Truck drivers and trucking companies were required to comply with the new definition of "on-duty time" and some other, narrowly applicable provisions of the standard by February 13. They have until July 1, 2013, to achieve compliance with the standard's other new provisions.

Practice Tip

Another rule change that recently took effect involves medical certifications for holders of CDLs. By Jan. 30, 2014, all CDL holders must inform their state driver's license agency which type of commercial motor vehicle operation they drive or expect to drive. Certain drivers will also be required to obtain a "certified" medical status.

Handheld Cell Phone Ban Expanded

The DOT's FMCSA and Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have again increased the restrictions on commercial truck and bus drivers' use of communication devices.

In September 2010, the FMCSA banned text messaging while operating a commercial truck or bus; in February 2011, the PHMSA issued a companion regulation, prohibiting texting by intrastate hazardous materials drivers. The new rule, issued jointly by the two agencies, prohibits interstate truck and bus drivers from using handheld cell phones while operating their vehicles and will affect approximately 4 million commercial drivers. Violation of this rule is a serious traffic violation for holders of commercial driver's licenses (CDLs).

The rule was issued based on research showing that handheld cell phones require a commercial driver to take several risky steps that hands-free phones do not. When commercial drivers search and reach for an object, like a cell phone, they are three times more likely to be involved in a crash or near miss.

Dialing a handheld cell phone makes crashes and near misses six times more likely. Because hands-free devices do not involve either of these risks, their use will still be permitted.

As with the HOS rule, penalties for commercial truck and bus companies that do not enforce compliance can be as high as $11,000, and drivers can face fines of up to $2,750 per offense and disqualification from operating a commercial motor vehicle for multiple offenses. Additionally, states will suspend a commercial driver's license after two or more serious traffic violations.

The handheld cell phone ban was also finalized in December and took effect on Jan. 3, 2012.

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