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Interstate truck drivers face cellphone ban on Jan. 3

Interstate truck drivers face cellphone ban on Jan. 3

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FORISTELL • Truck driver Terry Snyder has no problem with a new federal rule that will soon prohibit interstate truck and bus drivers from using hand-held phones while driving.

But he has one question: Why stop there?

Beginning Jan. 3, interstate drivers will face stiff federal penalties if they are caught gabbing on a hand-held cellphone. The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration said the measure is needed because commercial drivers who reach for or dial a cellphone while driving are far more likely to be involved in a crash.

Just reaching for a ringing cellphone makes a truck driver roughly three times more likely to be involved in a crash or have another mishap, federal transportation officials say. Transportation Secretary Ray Lahood said just a few seconds' distraction can prove deadly when large trucks and buses are involved.

While Snyder and other interstate truck drivers generally embrace the rule for that very reason, they asked Friday why the federal government doesn't extend the ban to passenger car drivers who talk on hand-held cellphones.

"They should expand it to everybody," said Snyder, who lives in Mohnton, Pa. "If you're going to operate a cellphone in a motor vehicle, you should be wearing a Bluetooth. It's as simple as that. Why limit it to truckers?"

He doesn't use a hand-held phone while he's driving.

Snyder said he has seen too many passenger car drivers talking and texting on the highways, seemingly unaware of their surroundings.

Trucker John Dusenbery, of Wisconsin, who was hauling turkeys to Illinois on Friday, said he doesn't talk on the phone while driving. If his phone rings, he will answer.

"I grab it," he said. "I say, 'I've got to call you back. I'm driving.'"

The U.S. Department of Transportation expects the new rule to affect about 4 million interstate commercial drivers.

Trucking industry support for the measure has been divided. The American Trucking Associations endorsed it. But the Owner-Operator Independent Drivers Association, based in Grain Valley, Mo., did not support it.

The independent drivers group said using a cellphone is no more distracting than global positioning satellite and other navigation systems or citizen band radios commonly used in truck cabs.

Further, the group said penalties for violating the rule are too harsh — civil penalties up to $2,750 per violation and $11,000 for employers — and raised concerns about how the rule will be enforced.

The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration "did not lay out an enforcement plan," said Norita Taylor, spokeswoman for the Independent Drivers Association. "So in our opinion, it leaves it open for he-said/she-said situations."

Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Tim Hull said officers will pull over large interstate trucks and buses if drivers are seen using hand-held phones.

Missouri doesn't outlaw the general motorist use of cellphones while driving, although drivers under age 21 may not text. Involving all types of vehicles statewide, there were 21 fatal crashes and 558 personal injury accidents in 2010 in which cellphone distraction was partly to blame.

Nationally, about 5,500 people were killed and a half million drivers injured in crashes blamed on distracted driving in 2009, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration research. Fatalities blamed on distraction represented 16 percent of overall traffic fatalities that year.

Hull said there has been no rash of truck-involved accidents blamed on cellphone use in Missouri.

But on July 15, 2008, three people were killed and 15 others injured when a tractor-trailer loaded with scrap aluminum slammed into a line of stopped traffic on Highway 40 (Interstate 64) west of Interstate 270.

The truck driver admitted to a Missouri Highway Patrol officer that he had been distracted by a cellphone.

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