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Great Hang Up: Safety board urges trucker cell phone ban

1:50 PM, Sep 14, 2011   |    comments
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Washington, DC -- The government should prohibit truckers and other commercial drivers from using cellphones while behind the wheel, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended Tuesday.

The unanimous recommendation followed a hearing on a fiery crash March 26, 2010, in Kentucky, where a tractor-trailer slammed head-on into a passenger van and killed 11 people. The board ruled that distraction from the truck driver's cellphone use probably caused the crash.

The truck driver, Kenneth Laymon of Jasper, Ala., who died in the crash, had just dialed a call on a cellphone when his truck crossed an unpaved median strip along Interstate 65 near Munfordville. Investigators found that he made and received 69 calls and texts during the 24 hours before the crash.

"Texting or talking on the phone while driving can turn deadly in a matter of seconds, particularly when a big rig or a bus is involved," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood says. "There is no call or text message that is worth risking lives."

Deborah Hersman, the safety-board chairman, acknowledged that truckers would likely oppose the recommendation. But she compared it to the initial efforts to require people to wear seat belts or to stop smoking indoors.

"Distracted driving is becoming increasingly prevalent, exacerbating the danger we encounter daily on our roadways," Hersman says. "It can be especially lethal when the distracted driver is at the wheel of a vehicle that weighs 40 tons and travels at highway speeds."

This more comprehensive recommendation to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration replaces a previous one from 2006 that sought to ban cellphone use for commercial drivers of passenger vehicles or school-bus drivers.

That agency banned text messaging while driving a commercial vehicle in September 2010, with penalties for truck and bus drivers up to $2,750. The agency proposed in December 2010 to ban all handheld cellphone use by commercial drivers, and a final ruling is expected this fall.

But the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety last year said it found no reduction in crashes after handheld cellphones were banned in California, Connecticut, New York and Washington, D.C.

The American Trucking Associations, a group of 37,000 companies nationwide, supported a ban for all drivers on handheld phones and on text messaging while driving. But the group took no position on banning hands-free phones because of mixed results in safety studies, and the group opposed banning the use of other devices, such as CB radios that combat fatigue and can provide warnings to drivers.

"The highways are our workplace, and we have consistently supported safe highways," said Boyd Stephenson, the association's safety and security manager.

No state bans all cellphone use for drivers, according to the Governors Highway Safety Association. Nine states and the District of Columbia ban drivers from using handheld cellphones while driving. Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia ban text messaging for all drivers.  Florida has no bans in place regarding distracted driving.

Besides the Kentucky crash, the safety board has investigated cellphone distractions in other fatal accidents.

•In July 2010, a 250-foot barge towed by a tugboat collided with an anchored tour boat in the Delaware River in Philadelphia, killing two passengers and sinking the passenger ship. The board blamed the crash on a tugboat mate distracted by using a cellphone and laptop while responsible for navigating the boat.

•In September 2008, a Southern California Reginal Rail Authority passenger train collided head-on with a Union Pacific Railroad  freight train near Chatsworth, Calif., killing 25 people. The board blamed the crash on the distraction of the passenger train's engineer sending text messages with a prohibited wireless device.

"It's a lesson for me about how the use of the cellphones have a big impact," said Lester Gingerich of Burkesville, Ky., whose son Joel died in the March 2010 crash. "They do distract you. I'm guilty of that myself."

By Bart Jansen, USA TODAY