Distracted driving killed 5,500 people on American roads and highways last year, and some of those crashes (likely many of them) happened as drivers tried to send and receive text messages behind the wheel – an act that researchers have found is many times more disorienting and deadly than drunk driving.
Considering the dangers, you would think that it would be illegal for commercial drivers hauling hazardous materials to text behind the wheel. Technically it isn’t. But the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) is working to change that.
Although the agency posted final rules on Tuesday prohibiting commercial truck and bus drivers from texting and driving, the agency does not have authority over most intrastate operators. However, the Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration does have authority over hazmat drivers.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has pushed states to adopt tougher laws against texting while driving, announced plans at the second summit on distracted driving on Tuesday to close the hazmat driver loophole. The DOT’s proposed rules would make texting behind the wheel unlawful for every hazmat driver, regardless of state boundaries.
The day-long distracted driving summit also showcased corporate efforts to improve driving safety among employees. According to LaHood, nearly 1,600 American companies encompassing about 10.5 million workers have adopted policies related to distracted driving. Another 550 companies covering about 1.5 million workers have pledged to establish similar policies by 2012.
Thirty states and the District of Columbia prohibit drivers from texting behind the wheel; eight states have passed laws barring drivers from using handheld cell phones.
The DOT and safety advocates hope to emulate the successful safety campaigns of the 1980s that persuaded car occupants to “buckle up” with safety belts and to refrain from drinking and driving. Efforts to raise awareness of those dangers resulted in sharp declines in traffic fatalities.
DOT officials underscored the need to raise awareness of the dangers of cell phone use behind the wheel by announcing the results of distracted driving crackdowns in Hartford, Connecticut, and Syracuse, New York.
Police in those cities spent two weeks ramping up surveillance. During that time, Hartford police issued 5,000 tickets to drivers talking or texting behind the wheel. Syracuse authorities wrote 4,500 tickets for distracted drivers.