The Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (“FMCSA”) and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (“PHMSA”) hope there now are approximately four million fewer distracted drivers on the road. On November 23, 2011, Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced a final rule which specifically prohibits all interstate commercial truck and bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while operating their vehicles.

The FMCSA and PHMSA created this joint rule in an effort to continue to curb distracted driving. "This rule represents a giant leap for safety. It is just too dangerous for drivers to use a hand-held cell phone while operating a commercial vehicle. Drivers must keep their eyes on the road, hands on the wheel and head in the game when operating on our roads. Lives are at stake," said FMCSA Administrator Anne S. Ferro.

FMCSA research shows that commercial drivers reaching for a cell phone are three times more likely to be involved in a crash or other safety-critical event, and dialing a hand-held cell phone makes a crash six times more likely.

Not only will the drivers be penalized for violations, but commercial truck and bus companies will also face a hefty fine if they allow drivers to use hand-held cell phones. Drivers who violate this rule will face federal civil penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense and disqualification from operating a commercial motor vehicle for multiple offenses. Commercial bus and truck companies could incur a maximum penalty of $11,000.

This rule is not the first of its kind. In September of 2010, FMCSA issued a regulation banning text messaging while operating a commercial truck or bus, and in February 2011, the PHMSA issued a companion regulation banning intrastate hazardous material drivers from texting.

Companies should update their company policies and handbooks to reflect these new rules. Failure to adopt and enforce cell phone policies could provide the basis for potential civil liability to operators beyond the civil penalties called for in the rule.