Cell-Phone Ban for Commercial Drivers May Save Lives

September 19, 2011

In March, 2010, 11 people were killed in Munfordville, Kentucky when a commercial truck crossed the median and collided with a 15-passenger van. After reviewing the accident for almost 18 months, the National Transportation Safety Board Commission (NTSB) determined that the semi driver was using his cell phone at the time of the collision. The last of four calls the driver made in the 23 minutes before the accident was only connected for one second before the crash at 5:14a.m. A total of 69 calls and text messages appeared on the phone in the 24 hours leading up to the accident.

As a result of this truck accident, NTSB is recommending that hand-held and hands-free cell phone use by commercial drivers be banned, unless there is an emergency. What the states and other transportation agencies do with the recommendation remains to be seen. Chuck Wolfe, spokesman for the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet, suggested that the banning of cell-phone use be handled by Congress rather than by the state of Kentucky since the drivers operate in multiple states. Kentucky currently has laws that prohibit all drivers from texting while driving and drivers under 18 from any cell-phone use. NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman encourages everyone to consider eliminating cell-phone use while driving, saying, "Changing behavior can start right now, for big-rig drivers and also for the rest of us. When you are at the wheel, driving safely should be your only focus. You owe it to yourself and all the people on the road you put at risk…"

While the families of the victims in the van did not file any lawsuits because of their religious beliefs, accidents that are attributed to driver distraction can have legal consequences. Gross negligence can be charged if the driver was distracted by texting. The fact that the semi driver was operating the vehicle on only four hours of sleep could have also been a basis for gross negligence. Employers of individuals who cause accidents while using their cell phones could be liable as well. A 2002 New York Times article regarding doing business by cell phone discusses a settlement of $500,000 between Smith Barney and the family of a motorcyclist killed by one of its brokers who was on the phone when the accident occurred. The actual driver of the car was charged individually with manslaughter and pled guilty.

Other changes recommended by the National Transportation Safety Board included a collaboration of the Federal Highway Administration and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration with the states to increase the safety of vehicle barriers. Kentucky and other states were also urged to include 15-passenger vans in their mandatory seat-belt laws. Mr. Wolfe of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet confirmed that not using a seat belt is a primary traffic offense, but not for passengers in large vans. The only two survivors of the Munfordville crash were 3- and 5-year-old boys, both of whom were properly restrained.

Kentucky accident lawyers Charles Miller and Rheanne Falkner help victims of auto and truck accidents determine the proper action to take in or out of court.

Sources:

Doing Business by Cellphone Creates New Liability Issues; Jonathon D. Glater; December 3, 2002
NTSB says trucker in 11-fatality accident was on cellphone, urges ban on devices for commercial drivers; James Carroll; September 13, 2011