Federal regulators have imposed a ban starting next month on the use of handheld cellphones by interstate truckers and bus drivers.

The ban, intended to curb crashes due to distracted driving, falls short of a recommendation issued in September by the National Transportation Safety Board but opposed by the trucking industry. That agency — which provides advice and conducts investigations, but has no regulatory authority — had urged prohibiting nearly 4 million U.S. commercial drivers from using handheld or hands-free cellphones on the road, except in emergencies.

The two units of the U.S. Department of Transportation that issued the new rule were the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. They justified their move by saying that either reaching for, or dialing, a hand-held phone poses “a specific safety risk.”

They added that it “is not clear … if simply talking on a mobile telephone presents a significant risk while driving.”

As FairWarning has reported, however, various studies have found that use of handheld or hands-free phones slows driver reactions and raises the risk of accidents. The cognitive demands of a phone conversation may cause “inattention blindness,” or a failure to respond to visual cues because the mind is somewhere else.

Still, a news release from the Department of Transportation characterized the new federal rule as “a giant leap for safety.”

“It’s just too dangerous for drivers to use a handheld cellphone while operating a commercial vehicle,” said Anne S. Ferro, head of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. “Drivers must keep their eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and head in the game when operating on our roads.”

Many of the biggest truck and bus operators — including UPS, Covenant Transport, Wal-Mart, Peter Pan and Greyhound — already ban their drivers from using hand-held phones.

Drivers who violate the federal cellphone restriction will face federal civil penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense. After two violations, drivers can have their commercial licenses suspended.


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