Legal Alert: Commercial Motor Vehicle Drivers and Employers Face Large Fines for Hand-Held Cell Phone Use While Driving

On January 3, 2012, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration’s (FMCSA) banned the use of hand-held cell phones by Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) drivers while driving their vehicles.

Drivers who violate the cell phone ban face fines of up to $2,750 per offense.  While employers are not legally mandated to have a policy prohibiting CMV drivers from using cell phones while driving, employers are liable for their CMV drivers’ violations.  Further, the fines are stiff – an employer can be fined up to $11,000 for each violation by its driver.  For that reason alone, our office recommends that our clients adopt a policy prohibiting cell phone usage by CMV drivers and strictly follow the policy thereafter.

Under the new rules, when driving, commercial vehicle drivers are specifically prohibited from holding a cell phone to conduct voice communications, dialing a cell phone by pressing more than a single button, or reaching for a cell phone in an unsafe manner.  A hands-free cell phone call can be made only if the device is close to the driver, the call does not require the driver to reach, and the call only requires pushing a single button.  A hands-free device that requires multiple functions is banned (such as first pushing a button to find a contact phone number and then pushing the phone number to send the call).

The hand-held cell phone ban goes beyond driving a CMV on a roadway.  It also bans cell phone usage while momentarily stopped for traffic or traffic control devices (i.e., stop sign or red traffic light).  However, “driving” does not include operating a CMV when the driver has moved the CMV to the side of, or off, a highway and has halted in a location where the CMV can safely remain stationary. 

There are limited exceptions to the hand-held cell phone ban.  For example, the use of a hand-held cell phone is permitted when necessary to communicate with law enforcement or emergency service providers.  The ban also does not prohibit using GPS systems, CB radios, music players, or fleet management systems.

Employers of CMV drivers need to become familiar with the hand-held cell phone ban and its exceptions.  In addition to the FMCSA making the CMV employer liable for its drivers’ violations, employers are commonly sued for damages arising from vehicle collisions involving an employee on business.  This provides an additional reason why employers should establish a FMCSA compliant policy and provide training for its employees on cell phone restrictions.  

If you have questions, or you need assistance with drafting a FMCSA compliant policy or employee training, please contact Masud Labor Law Group.