FMCSA Rules Address Role of Mobile Phones in Semi-Truck Accidents

Semi-truck accidents and other commercial motor vehicle crashes caused by distracted driving continue to pose a substantial threat to commercial drivers and others with whom they share the road. A persistent uptick in the number of deadly semi-truck accidents, including work-zone accidents, which are at their highest level since 2006, underscores the need for more effective regulations concerning the use of mobile phones in commercial motor vehicles.

Research commissioned by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) shows the odds of being involved in a crash, near-crash, or other safety-critical event such as unintentional lane deviation are drastically higher for commercial motor vehicle (CMV) drivers who text while driving than those who don’t.

According to the FMCSA, CMV drivers who text behind the wheel are 23.2 times more likely to become involved in a crash or other safety-critical event than CMV drivers who refrain from texting. The odds are six times higher for CMV drivers who simply dial a number on their mobile phone while driving than those who don’t.

Drivers who text take their eyes off the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. For a driver traveling 55 mph, this equates to traveling 371 feet, or the approximate length of a football field (including the end zones)—without looking at the road.

Drivers who dial a phone number take their eyes off the road for 3.8 seconds, which means they effectively drive blind for 306 feet while traveling at 55 mph. For trucks traveling faster, the odds of becoming involved in a tractor-trailer accident are substantially greater.

Texting and other mobile phone restrictions for CMV drivers

Addressing the need to end distracted driving and drive down the number of semi-truck accidents, the FMCSA and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) have published rules that essentially ban the use of mobile phones for commercial truck and bus drivers.

The rules prohibit interstate truck drivers, hazardous material drivers, and bus drivers from texting or using their handheld mobile phones for most other purposes while operating their vehicles.

Under the rules, texting means manually entering alphanumeric text into or reading text from a mobile phone or other electronic device. This includes, but is not limited to, short message service, emailing, instant messaging, a command or request to access a Web page, or pressing more than a single button to start or end a voice call using a mobile phone.

The rules also prohibit a CMV driver from reaching for or holding a mobile phone to conduct voice communication and dialing by pressing more than a single button. CMV drivers who use a mobile phone while driving can only operate a hands-free phone located within reach. In short, the rule prohibits unsafely reaching for a device, holding a mobile phone, or pressing multiple buttons.

Violations can result in fines and/or disqualifications and impact a motor carrier’s and/or driver’s Safety Measurement System (SMS) results.  See 49 CFR Parts 383, 384, 390, 391, and 392.

Can CMV drivers use a mobile phone and still obey the rules?

The short answer is yes, but as we mentioned before, usage is minimal. Under the rules, CMV drivers can:

  • Locate and access the mobile phone while restrained by properly adjusted safety belts
  • Use the phone either with an earpiece or on speakerphone function
  • Use voice-activated or one-button touch features to initiate, answer, or terminate a call. To comply, the driver must be able to initiate, answer, or end a call by touching a single button. The driver must remain in the seated driving position and be properly restrained by a seat belt. Drivers are not in compliance if they unsafely reach for a mobile phone, even if they intend to use the hands-free function.

Following are some important excerpts from the rules:

49 CFR § 392.80  Prohibition against texting.

  • Drivers: No driver shall engage in texting while driving.
  • Motor carriers: No motor carrier shall allow or require its drivers to engage in texting while driving.
  • For the purpose of this section only, driving means operating a commercial motor vehicle with the motor running, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic control device, or other momentary delays. Driving does not include operating a commercial motor vehicle with or without the motor running when the driver moved the vehicle to the side of, or off, a highway, as defined in 49 CFR 390.5, and halted in a location where the vehicle can safely remain stationary.
  • Emergency exception: Texting while driving is permissible by drivers of a commercial motor vehicle when necessary to communicate with law enforcement officials or other emergency services.

49 CFR § 392.82  Using a handheld mobile telephone.

  • (1) No driver shall use a handheld mobile telephone while driving a CMV.
  • (2) No motor carrier shall allow or require its drivers to use a handheld mobile telephone while driving a CMV.
  • For the purpose of this section only, driving means operating a commercial motor vehicle on a highway, including while temporarily stationary because of traffic, a traffic control device, or other momentary delays. Driving does not include operating a commercial motor vehicle when the driver has moved the vehicle to the side of, or off, a highway and has halted in a location where the vehicle can safely remain stationary.
  • Emergency exception: Using a handheld mobile telephone is permissible by drivers of a CMV when necessary to communicate with law enforcement officials or other emergency services.

CMV drivers convicted of a handheld phone violation twice within three years will be disqualified for 60 days. If convicted for a third violation within three years, the driver will be disqualified for 120 days.

The FMCSA rules specifically provide for employer liability. Within the language of the rule, FMCSA states that “no motor carrier shall allow or require its drivers to use a handheld mobile telephone while driving a CMV.” In the preamble, FMCSA interprets the regulatory language to mean that motor carriers are responsible for the actions of their drivers and therefore can be held liable for tractor-trailer accidents that occur as a result of their drivers’ actions. This holds true regardless of whether or not the motor carrier sanctions such actions. FMCSA will hold employers accountable if the employee was doing his or her job, carrying out company business, or otherwise acting on the employer’s behalf when a violation occurs.

If you need more information on semi-truck accidents, CMV rules and regulations, or other matters concerning trucking litigation generally, contact Chris Glover, Rob Register, or Ben Baker, Beasley Allen lawyers who handle this type of litigation. You can reach them at 800-898-2034 or by email to [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected]

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