US imposes tough penalties on commercial drivers who use cell phones, but tough to tell if they're working

Doug McKelway reports


The Spanish train operator who sped through a turn at over twice the posted speed limit, killing 79 people last month, had navigated that same curve over 60 times without incident. But at the time of the crash, he was so distracted by a call from a colleague on his work phone that he ignored three computerized warnings to slow down.

In the U.S., the Federal Railway Administration (FRA) banned the use of phones by operators in 2010. "If they are caught violating the rules, they are dismissed immediately, or are fined or both," said Martin Shroeder of the American Public Transportation Association.

The Department of Transportation (DOT) banned commercial truck and bus drivers from texting in 2010 and a year later banned all hand-held calls.  At the time, then-Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood said, "If you're looking down at your texting device for four to five seconds, you're driving the length of a football field in a four thousand pound unguided missile."

Commercial drivers found violating texting and cell phone bans can be fined up to $2,750 and disqualified for multiple offenses. Their employers can be fined up to $11,000. The most egregious corporate violators can be shut down.

Given the myriad causes of accidents, it is difficult to determine whether the penalties are working.

Highway fatalities were up 5.3 percent last year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. But the DOT found the odds of crashes, near crashes, or lane intrusions were 23 times greater for commercial drivers who texted and six times greater for those who dialed a phone while driving.

In contrast, 2012 was the safest year in American railroading history, part of a downward trend during the last decade. The FRA has seen a 42 percent decrease in train accidents over the last 10 years.

One new groundbreaking study suggests tough penalties are warranted, but may have limited effect because of what researchers call cognitive distraction.

"What we're realizing is that the brain only has a certain amount of bandwidth and every time you add an extra task, there's less and less bandwidth that is applied to the attention a driver can put on the road," said Jurek Grabowski, the research director at the AAA Foundation.

The AAA foundation is working with vehicle manufacturers to minimize cognitive distraction by encouraging the design of hands-free voice commands and commands that apply only to the proper functioning of the vehicle, not to extraneous commands for email, social media, or non-vital functioning of the vehicle.

Grabowski says research suggests the natural voice, as opposed to the automated voice, might decrease cognitive distraction, and that motorists tend to be more attentive to female voices  than male ones.

Former NTSB investigator John Goglia said focus on the task at hand  - safe transportation - is paramount. "The further detached  from the task, whether its flying an airplane, driving a train, whatever it is, the further detached from that activity, the less attention you're going to pay to it," he said.


Doug McKelway joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in November 2010 and serves as a Washington-based correspondent. Click here for more information on Doug McKelway