Cell Phone Laws For Truck Drivers

Far too many car crashes on U.S. roadways are caused by a single culprit: distracted driving due to cell phone use behind the wheel. In fact, according to the National Safety Council, cell phone use plays a role in 27 percent of car crashes. That’s over a quarter of all roadway accidents—a staggering statistic that really shouldn’t be any surprise. Most drivers are aware of the dangers of distracted driving, including the fact that it just isn’t safe to text, make calls, or use smartphone apps while behind the wheel. Even hands-free cell phone use isn’t safe; anything that pulls a driver’s focus and attention away from the road is a hazard.

Distracted driving is an issue for all drivers, and the ubiquity of cell phones makes this especially true these days. Over 90% of adults have a cell phone, and most people have incorporated their phones into nearly every part of their daily life, including their time on the road. Of course, having a cell phone available while you’re driving can be a smart safety measure; it’s your lifeline if you have a flat tire, run out of gas, or simply get lost. The key is using your cell phone correctly—meaning, pulling over so you can use your phone safely.

What many drivers may not know, however, is whether cell phone laws for truck drivers are the same as those for non-commercial drivers. Do these drivers who carry a commercial driver’s license (CDL) and operate commercial vehicles, such as large trucks or passenger buses, follow a different set of rules and regulations than other drivers on the road? Are they held to a higher legal standard than other drivers, and if so, are penalties higher for CDL drivers who are involved in traffic accidents? Let’s explore the facts.

Semi truck driving on highwayA History of Cell Phone Policy for CDL Drivers

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) defines driver distraction as “the diversion of attention from activities critical for safe driving to a competing activity,” such as cell phone use. The FMCSA also notes that driver distraction “increases your risk of getting into a crash.” Distracted driving is a serious problem among all drivers, but due to the size and weight of most commercial vehicles, accidents involving these larger trucks are more likely to be serious or even fatal.

Since it takes more skill and experience to drive a commercial vehicle than to drive a smaller, non-commercial vehicle, drivers of commercial trucks, passenger buses, and school buses are required to have a different kind of driver’s license: CDLs. There are three classes of CDL (Classes A, B, and C) that are based on several considerations, including the vehicle’s weight as well as whether the driver is hauling a trailer, transporting hazardous materials, or transporting more than 15 passengers. These license classes and distinctions were established in 1986 by the Commercial Motor Vehicle Safety Act.

Legally speaking, CDL drivers are held to a higher standard on the road than other drivers. If a CDL driver commits a serious traffic violation, even while operating a non-commercial vehicle, it could jeopardize his or her CDL certification. Similarly, depending on individual state laws, truck and bus drivers are often subject to different laws, policies, and regulations regarding cell phone use than other drivers.

This makes sense when you consider that researchers have found CDL drivers to be three times more likely to be involved in an accident when they reach for an object while driving, and six times more likely when they dial a handheld cell phone while driving. The Federation of American Scientists has reported a steady increase since 2009 in rates of truck accident injuries and fatalities, and a 2009 study found that 71% of crashes involving large trucks occurred due to truck driver distraction. That’s nearly three-quarters of all commercial truck accidents! Studies also show that large trucks and buses are responsible for a disproportionately large number of fatal traffic accidents. While commercial vehicles make up only 4% of the nation’s registered vehicles, they are involved in 12% of all traffic fatalities.

Clearly, these statistics show a real need for comprehensive regulations that improve road safety for all drivers.

A shelf full of attorney's booksAre CDL Cell Phone Laws Working?

While cell phone laws differ from state to state, the majority of all U.S. states and territories have enacted various legal limits on cell phone use while driving, and those limits vary based on driver type. For example, in 47 states, all drivers, including CDL drivers, are banned from text messaging while a car is in motion, while 20 states have banned all cell phone use by school bus drivers.

Starting in 2012, all interstate truck and bus drivers were banned by federal law from any handheld cell phone use while behind the wheel. Additional federal regulations were passed a year later, in 2013, to limit both truck sizes and driving time to make roads safer, but many of those regulations have since been suspended. Without adequate limits on their time spent behind the wheel and working under the pressures of tight deadlines and low wages, CDL drivers are more likely to ignore cell phone usage laws and use their phones while driving. In fact, some commercial trucking companies allow or even require their drivers to use cell phones while on the road, despite the fact that this is both unsafe and illegal. Together, these factors create unsafe driving conditions for everyone on the road.

Commercial trucking companies and CDL drivers should be extra careful about cell phone use while driving, because reports in recent years have shown an increase in cell phone-related car crashes. As of 2015, texting-related crashes were estimated to have increased for three years straight. By contrast, crashes that involved talking on a cell phone were estimated to have decreased slightly over the same period. That said, the overall rate of cell phone-related crashes has gone up over time.

Furthermore, not all states are currently in compliance with federal laws regarding CDL drivers and cell phone usage. In Iowa, for example, commercial vehicle drivers will receive only a general citation for violating federal cell phone use laws, rather than a specific one. State and federal efforts to improve road safety, however, are ongoing. If state legislation introduced in Iowa is passed in 2018, Iowan CDL drivers will be more likely to lose their commercial licenses for a set of violations, including texting while driving.

Semi truck colliding with carCan Truck Drivers be Fined for Texting While Driving in a Commercial Vehicle?

You might be wondering whether there is a fine for texting while driving in a commercial vehicle. The 2012 law discussed in the previous section bans commercial vehicle drivers from all forms of cell phone use, including texting, while operating a commercial vehicle—but what are the legal consequences of violating that ban?

Truck drivers who are caught violating the provisions of the law are subject to the following:

  • Federal fines of up to $2,750 for each offense
  • Suspension of their CDL after multiple offenses
  • Suspension of their CDL after two or more serious traffic violations

Commercial vehicle companies also face repercussions for violations of the above law. Companies that allow their drivers to use handheld cell phones while driving are subject to fines of up to $11,000.

Vehicles driving on highwayFMCSA Distracted Driving Prevention Tips

Commercial drivers who text while driving are 23.2 times more likely to be in a dangerous situation, whether that is an accident or a close call, when compared to drivers who do not. FMSCA rules prohibit drivers from sending an email, pressing more than one button to use a voice assistant, reaching for a device, or holding a phone while driving. Regulations apply to CDL drivers when driving on a roadway or when the vehicle is stationary because of traffic of temporary delays.

To keep attention on the road and to be compliant with the law, CDL drivers should:

  • Make sure that a phone is in close enough proximity to use while the driver is safely buckled in with his or her seat belt.
  • Utilize the speaker function or an earbud.
  • Use voice commands to gather any needed information.
  • Place the phone so that hands-free features can be used and the driver does not have to do anything more than press a single button.

Over 70% of accidents involving large trucks occurred while the truck driver was engaged in an activity other than driving. To avoid these preventable crashes, FMCSA issued the following tips for commercial drivers:

  • Avoid letting any objects which are outside your truck distract you from the task at hand. This might mean ignoring buildings, billboards, and people in your peripheral vision. Even mirrors and parts of a truck can be distracting, so making any needed adjustments before you get on the road can help make for a safer trip.
  • Refrain from texting while driving your commercial vehicle. FMCSA regulations were first put in place after troubling statistics were released in a 2009 study on driver distraction in the trucking industry. President Obama found the research so convincing that he later issued an executive order to ban federal employees from texting while driving while on government business. To avoid temptation, truckers can put phones on silent or turn them off completely while driving.
  • Do not use a portable data terminal while driving. Dispatching devices can allow a truck driver to communicate, maintain logs, and help navigate. However, these devices take a driver’s eyes off the road, just like texting. In fact, one study showed that CDL drivers were nine times as likely to be put in a dangerous position while using a dispatching device.
  • Hold off on dialing a phone while you are driving. Finding and entering in a phone number takes your eyes off the road for a long enough period to have a crash. In fact, a recent study showed that dialing while driving increased the chance of a near collision or an actual wreck by three times. If you must make a call, pull over and keep your phone call brief. In situations where you need to make a call, use a voice assistant to make the call for you from your contacts.
  • Abstain from writing, reading, or using a paper map while driving. As with dialing a phone, a driver can take his or her eyes off the road long enough to cause a truck accident while doing these activities. Most trucks are equipped with GPS systems, which can help with navigation and help you keep safe, provided you enter your destination into the device before you begin driving.
  • Skip food and drink while you are driving. In most cases, eating or drinking takes one of your hands off the wheel, making you more vulnerable to putting yourself in an unsafe situation. Eating can be even riskier than talking on a cell phone while behind the wheel. To be safe, truckers can either pull completely off the roadway to eat or drink or have a meal before they get into their truck.

Victims of Truck Accidents Can Count on Slack Davis Sanger For Compassionate Counsel

If you or someone you love has been involved in an accident with a CDL truck driver, you may have experienced serious injury or even tragic loss of life of a loved one. Even in the best-case scenario, commercial truck accidents can result in compounding effects such as mounting medical bills, lost wages due to time off work and added expense and insurance hassles related to repairing or replacing your vehicle. That’s where the experienced attorneys at Slack Davis Sanger can help. Our lawyers are authorities on personal injury and wrongful death cases related to large truck accidents, and our track record shows we are a leader in advocating for improved passenger safety. You are entitled to receive fair compensation, and we can help secure it for you.