The Department of Transportation has issued a final rule banning the use of hand-held cell phones by interstate truck and bus drivers while the vehicles are in operation in order to combat distracted driving. The rule emphasizes that the prohibition applies to hand-held devices only. Hands-free devices and mobile phones with a speaker phone option and one-touch dialing are permissible so long the device is within the driver’s reach while he or she is in the normal seated position with the seat belt fastened. The rule does, however, prohibit the push-to-talk function of a mobile telephone, as this would require the driver to hold the device while driving.

This prohibition applies while the vehicle is operating on a highway, even if it is temporarily idling due to traffic or other momentarily delays. The rule clarifies that a driver may use a hand-held device if he or she “has moved the vehicle to the side of, or off, a highway and has halted the vehicle in a location where it can safely remain stationary.” Moreover, the rule permits a commercial motor vehicle (CMV) driver to use either a hand-held or hands-free mobile telephone to contact law enforcement or other emergency services for such purposes as reporting an accident or drunk driver.

The rule imposes penalties on drivers and their employers for violations of the new regulations. Specifically, drivers found in violation of the rule face up to $2,750 per offense and disqualification from operating a CMV for multiple transgressions. In addition, drivers face state suspension of their commercial driver’s license after two or more serious violations of state or local laws prohibiting cell phone use while driving. According to the DOT, 19 states and the District of Columbia have implemented laws prohibiting the use of all mobile telephones while driving a school bus, and nine states and the District of Columbia have traffic laws prohibiting all motor vehicle drivers from using a hand-held mobile telephone while driving. Additional states and localities have imposed stricter mobile phone regulations for transit bus and motor coach drivers.

Commercial bus and truck companies likewise face penalties of up to $11,000 if they allow their drivers to use cell phones while on duty. Some comments to the proposed rule raised concerns that restricting hand-held mobile telephone use by drivers operating CMVs in interstate commerce would impede business and require many more stops for drivers. DOT responded that, because drivers have other options available that do not require pulling over and stopping, the Agency disagreed that this rule would impede business. Additionally, the Agency estimated the minimum cost of upgrading from a non-compliant mobile telephone to a compliant one to be as low as $29.99. Therefore, according to the Agency, abiding by the final rule will not create a burden on, or hardship for, CMV drivers.

In the final rule, the DOT acknowledged the concerns expressed by commercial vehicle operators that employer sanctions are inappropriate where an employer has a policy banning hand-held phone use already in place, and that motor carriers should not be deemed to have allowed hand-held cellphone use if they take good faith steps to ensure that their drivers comply with the regulations. The DOT did not, however, change the rule to impose penalties only on employers that knowingly permit their drivers to violate the rule in response to these concerns. Instead, the DOT stated simply that “a motor carrier should put in place or have company policies or practices that make it clear that a carrier does not allow or require hand-held mobile phone use while driving. A motor carrier is responsible for the actions of its drivers.”

This ban applies to all interstate drivers of commercial motor vehicles and school buses, even though certain CMV drivers – those operating small passenger-carrying vehicles not for direct compensation – are otherwise exempt from particular Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) regulations. The rule does narrowly exempt CMVs used in certain custom-harvesting operations.

According to a press release, this rule will impact approximately four million commercial vehicle drivers.

The provisions of this rule will take effect 30 days after the rule is published in the Federal Register.