Distracted Driving For Truck Drivers: The Penalties And Risks

by Brett Aquila

What Should Truck Drivers Know About Distracted Driving:

New FMCSA regulations prohibit texting and hand-held mobile phone use while operating a commercial motor vehicle used in interstate commerce.

Drivers caught texting or using hand-held mobile phones are subject to fines, disqualifications, and being put out-of-service.

The FMCSA rules do not apply to devices used for dispatching, as long as they are used as part of the company's fleet management system and are not being used for texting.

Research shows that CMV drivers who text were more than 23 times likely to be involved in a safety-critical event than those who do not.

CMV drivers dialing mobile phones were 6 times more likely to be involved in a safety-critical event.

While using hand-held devices to call or text is expressly prohibited, using the hands-free options of these devices is usually acceptable.

While state rules usually apply first, the fact that many states still haven't devised rules to address distracted driving means that the FMCSA rules apply regardless of what state you are in.

How Does The FMCSA Define 'Distracted Driving'?

The FMCSA, in the interest of public safety, kept it short and simple regarding the use of mobile devices by truck drivers:

  • No Reaching

  • No Holding

  • No Dialing

  • No Texting

  • No Reading

Texting, as defined in the new FMCSA regulations, "means manually entering alphanumeric text into, or reading text from, an electronic device." This includes pressing more than one button to initiate or terminate a call, or texting on a dispatching device.

The FMCSA also issued a separate rule that defines using a mobile device as:

  • Using at least one hand to hold a mobile phone to make a call;
  • Dialing a mobile phone by pressing more than a single button; or
  • Reaching for a mobile phone in a manner that requires a driver to maneuver so that he or she is no longer in a seated driving position, restrained by a seat belt.

What this means for a truck driver is that, with the exception contacting law enforcement or in an emergency, texting or dialing or phone calls need to be "hands-free." Any hands-free device needs to be located in close proximity to the driver.

This will normally involve using an earpiece-speaker phone, hands-free dialing, or hands-free mode. Hands-free generally means being able to safely activate a mobile device by touching a single button, while safely and properly seated and restrained.

Perhaps it should be noted here that the FMCSA regulations do not specifically mention the use of camera phones while driving. It should also be noted that using a camera to take a picture of that giant blue cow in the field next to you, while probably a freaking awesome sight, would certainly be considered "unsafe" by the Feds.

The Laws Regarding Dispatching Devices (Qualcomm)

The FMCSA addresses dispatching devices like this:

"texting on a dispatching device is indistinguishable from texting on another text-capable device, and is therefore prohibited."

Many trucking companies have been moving towards versions of hands-free dispatching devices (Qualcomm) for some time, and many are available with combined GPS systems. Some will only display a short message until the driver stops to read the rest, and some will just give off a beep until the truck is parked.

Drivers are technically prohibited from using hand-held devices while stopped at a traffic light, or in some other kind of traffic delay, but are allowed to use them if safely pulled over to the side of the road.

Penalties For Distracted Driving

Penalties for truck drivers caught driving while distracted:

Drivers can be fined up to $2,750.

Repeat offenses will result in the driver being disqualified or put out of service for up to 120 days.

The driver's employer can be fined up to $11,000 if they knowingly allow or require drivers to use hand-held devices while driving.

Violations will negatively affect the employer's SMS (Safety Measurement System) ratings.

Violations are considered "serious traffic violations" and penalties are taken from existing FMCSA guidelines.

Two serious traffic violations within a three year period will get a driver disqualified for 60 days, while three violations in three years will put a driver out of service for 120 days. Additionally, drivers will be subject to hefty civil fines.

The penalties for using a hand-held device while driving are, in addition to whatever the driver's employer dishes out for violating any of their particular policies on the subject, many times include termination. Most employers will have policies in line with the laws, as distracted drivers who cause a wreck while operating under the company flag are giant lawsuits waiting to happen.

There are still many states which have not, for various reasons, banned texting while driving, or even distracted driving in general. Therefore, any driver engaged in interstate commerce (i.e. every over-the-road [OTR] driver out there), is subject to the FMCSA distracted driving rules regardless of what state they drive out of, or are driving in.

States will be required, however, to come up with their own set of compatible rules for CMV drivers and distracted driving.

Studies Show The Increased Risk Of Mobile Device Use While Driving

It is estimated that a dialing or texting driver takes his eyes off of the road for between 3.8 and 4.6 seconds at a time. Not a long time, it seems, until you realize that at 55mph, the truck will travel over 300 feet. Longer than a football field.

The FMCSA commissioned a study through the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute that investigated just how much the risk of safety-critical events increased with hand-held mobile use by truck drivers.

How Likely Is The Risk Of An Accident?

  • Texting: 23.2 times as likely
  • Writing: 9.0
  • Dial Cell Phone: 5.9
  • Reach for electronic device: 6.7
  • Look at map: 7.0
  • Reach for object in vehicle: 3.1
  • Talk or listen to CB radio: 0.6
  • Talk or listen to hands-free phone: 0.4

No Calls, No Texting, No Tickets

As popular and invasive as cell phone use has become, CMV drivers need to know and understand the laws regarding distracted driving. Just as important, they should be practicing common sense safety procedures with their use.

See Also:


Over The Road

OTR driving normally means you'll be hauling freight to various customers throughout your company's hauling region. It often entails being gone from home for two to three weeks at a time.


Omnitracs (a.k.a. Qualcomm) is a satellite-based messaging system with built-in GPS capabilities built by Qualcomm. It has a small computer screen and keyboard and is tied into the truck’s computer. It allows trucking companies to track where the driver is at, monitor the truck, and send and receive messages with the driver – similar to email.

Commercial Motor Vehicle:

A commercial motor vehicle is any vehicle used in commerce to transport passengers or property with either:

  • A gross vehicle weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more
  • A gross combination weight rating of 26,001 pounds or more which includes a towed unit with a gross vehicle weight rating of more than 10,000 pounds
  • CSA:

    Compliance, Safety, Accountability (CSA)

    The CSA is a Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA) initiative to improve large truck and bus safety and ultimately reduce crashes, injuries, and fatalities that are related to commercial motor vehicle


    Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration

    The FMCSA was established within the Department of Transportation on January 1, 2000. Their primary mission is to prevent commercial motor vehicle-related fatalities and injuries.

    What Does The FMCSA Do?

    • Commercial Drivers' Licenses
    • Data and Analysis
    • Regulatory Compliance and Enforcement
    • Research and Technology
    • Safety Assistance
    • Support and Information Sharing


    Department Of Transportation

    A department of the federal executive branch responsible for the national highways and for railroad and airline safety. It also manages Amtrak, the national railroad system, and the Coast Guard.

    State and Federal DOT Officers are responsible for commercial vehicle enforcement. "The truck police" you could call them.


    Commercial Motor Vehicle

    A CMV is a vehicle that is used as part of a business, is involved in interstate commerce, and may fit any of these descriptions:

    • Weighs 10,001 pounds or more
    • Has a gross vehicle weight rating or gross combination weight rating of 10,001 pounds or more
    • Is designed or used to transport 16 or more passengers (including the driver) not for compensation
    • Is designed or used to transport 9 or more passengers (including the driver) for compensation
    • Is transporting hazardous materials in a quantity requiring placards

    Interstate Commerce:

    Commercial trade, business, movement of goods or money, or transportation from one state to another, regulated by the Federal Department Of Transportation (DOT).


    Commercial trade, business, movement of goods or money, or transportation from one state to another, regulated by the Federal Department Of Transportation (DOT).


    Dispatcher, Fleet Manager, Driver Manager

    The primary person a driver communicates with at his/her company. A dispatcher can play many roles, depending on the company's structure. Dispatchers may assign freight, file requests for home time, relay messages between the driver and management, inform customer service of any delays, change appointment times, and report information to the load planners.


    Hours Of Service

    HOS refers to the logbook hours of service regulations.


    Operating While Intoxicated


    When a violation by either a driver or company is confirmed, an out-of-service order removes either the driver or the vehicle from the roadway until the violation is corrected.

by Brett Aquila

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