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NTSB Calls to Ban Hands-Free Cell Phones from Drivers

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The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has recommended several policy changes to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) following their investigation of a crash between a truck and a train in Maryland back in 2013.

The truck passed through a grade crossing just in front of an oncoming train, which hit the truck and derailed, spilling hazardous cargo. The driver survived but with severe injuries, and exploding cargo caused property damage as much as half a mile away from the collision site.

Investigators found that the driver typically relied on his ears to tell him of approaching trains, instead of stopping just before the crossing to look. On this occasion, he received a cell phone call just before reaching the tracks and never heard the train whistle. He may also have been less alert than normal because of an untreated, undisclosed medical problem. Further, his employer has a history of repeated safety violations, including not maintaining driver qualification files and not tracking driver hours.

Possibly the most important of NTSBs recommendations, and certainly the one most likely to impact drivers directly, is that the FMCSA ban drivers’ use of even hands-free cell phones when driving.

Many jurisdictions have already banned cell phone use while driving unless the device is hands-free, the assumption being that handling the phone or looking at it is an unacceptably dangerous distraction. But NTSB has found that hands-free devices are also unacceptably dangerous. The real problem is not what the driver’s hands are doing but what his or her mind is doing behind the wheel. Trying to talk to someone who is not in the vehicle takes the driver’s mind away from the vehicle as well.

In the case of the crash in Maryland, the driver was using a hands-free cell phone when he was struck by the train.

NTSB also recommended that FMCSA improve how it follows up on compliance violations, and that it improve how investigators and medical examiners communicate about possible medical disqualifications. The Board asked states, railroads, and landowners to work together to improve safety at private grade crossing.

All of these recommendations have the potential to make the roads safer, but most will impact drivers only indirectly. And if the FMCSA chooses not to act, drivers and their employers can do little to improve these areas on their own.

Talking while driving is an exception.

No one needs to wait for Federal action to refrain from using a cell phone. Conversely, even if the FMCSA bans the use of hands-free phones behind the wheel, drivers will likely keep using them unless they accept the ban is necessary. The rule would be hard to enforce.

Employers can help here through driver education and bringing awareness to the point that any form of distraction is dangerous and that even hands-free phones are unacceptably distracting. If a phone call is so important it can’t wait, the driver should pull over in a safe location to make the call.

Aware of the safety risks that texting and hands-free phone calls bring to the road, many delivery fleets and logistics companies are actively deploying two-way messaging tools for their operations. Comprehensive fleet management systems can provide an effective communication solution between dispatch and drivers. With Teletrac’s app-based two-way messaging tool, drivers can use their in-vehicle devices (displays, tablets) to quickly create and send inbound canned or free-form text messages to dispatchers and vice-versa. Messages are stamped with a date, time and vehicle name, enabling managers to stay updated about job-site arrivals, departures, availability and job details for each driver. Furthermore, the messaging feature disables once the vehicle is moving, eliminating the temptation and risk of sending a message while in route. To learn more about Teletrac two-way messaging visit: http://www.teletrac.com/fleet-management-software/driver-tracking/two-way-messaging


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