Over the last ten years or so it has become self-evident that distractions related to cell phone use while driving present grave hazards. As a result, individual drivers and commercial carriers have begun to rely on blue-tooth or other hands-free technologies to communicate while driving. The issue for litigation which arises is whether hands-free communication is any safer than distractions from other means of cell phone usage?

Sections 392.80 and 392.82 of the FMCSA prohibit texting and the use of a handheld mobile telephone while driving a commercial motor vehicle. A “hand held mobile telephone” refers to the use of at least one hand to hold, dial, or answer a telephone in order to conduct voice communication. However there are no similar regulations to prohibit using a hands-free device, and “texting” is distinguished from using other devices such as fleet management systems, dispatching devices, and CB radios. 49 CFR 390.5.

Research is split on this issue of whether using hands-free devices for communication while driving is safe. According to a study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Transportation, stimuli that draw drivers’ visual attention away from the forward roadway are significant causes of severe accidents. This sounds like common sense, but this distraction time is amplified tenfold when driving a 20 ton vehicle at 70 miles per hour. However, the study also suggested that the use of voice activated, handsfree devices did not have a significant impact of visual attention. Based on the analysis of safety-critical events, driving, talking or listening were not significant risk factors in causing accidents. Driver Distraction in Commercial Vehicle Operations, September, 2009.

On the other hand, additional studies have shown that using hands-free devices also leads to a distraction in cognitive attention. The research cited indicated that the brain cannot truly multi-task. www.insurancejournal.com, April 15, 2014. Evidence showed that using a hands free phone while driving impairs your reaction time to critical events and increases your crash risk about the same as if you were using a hand-held phone.

Because the use of smart phone devices and other electronic equipment has become pervasive in our everyday lives, commercial carriers will always be faced with safety concerns relating to the use of these technologies. As in most situations, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The best ways to prevent accidents and the high cost of litigation is to promote safety and vigilance in all respects while driving.

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Andy Stein


The information published in Hedrick Gardner Alerts is general in nature and not intended to take the place of legal advice on any particular matter. © 2017 Hedrick Gardner Kincheloe & Garofalo LLP