Commercial truck and bus drivers across the country could face stiff penalties starting next week if they are caught using a handheld cellphone behind the wheel.
The U.S. Department of Transportation's new ban on handheld cellphones for commercial drivers goes into effect Tuesday for all interstate travel, extending to holding, dialing and reaching for cellphones while driving. Hands-free devices will still be allowed.
Commercial drivers who violate the ban will face federal civil penalties of up to $2,750 for each offense and the loss of their commercial driver's license for multiple offenses. Trucking and bus companies that allow their drivers to use handheld cellphones could pay as much as $11,000 in fines.
Maj. Randy Hartley, assistant superintendent of the South Dakota Highway Patrol, said the handheld ban will not be enforced in South Dakota, though, until the change to the federal motor carrier code is adopted by the state Legislature. That likely will not happen until 2013.
"We have a bill that will go before the Legislature this year, but it's only for changes that were made in 2011. This one doesn't take effect until Jan. 3, 2012," Hartley said.
"It's a matter of timing."
Even with the delay, the South Dakota Trucking Association is already telling its members to make the switch now to wireless or wired headsets to avoid confusion as they cross state lines, president Myron Rau said.
"Most of the members of the South Dakota Trucking Association operate in 48 states," Rau said. "We're just going to comply, whether South Dakota has adopted it or not."
The group does not object to the ban, but Rau said they do object to commercial drivers being singled out for the restriction. According to Rau, about 75 percent of the accidents involving a truck were the fault of the other vehicle.
"If we want to put blame on distracted driving, we need to look at all motorists, not just commercial truck drivers," Rau said.
Local trucking company owners and drivers agreed.
Alton Palmer, owner of Alton Palmer Trucking in Rapid City, said his six company drivers and one owner-operator are instructed not to call back for information until they pull over in a safe place.
"I don't think anybody ought to use them," Palmer said. "I don't think it should just be the truckers."
Texting while driving is particularly troubling to the lifelong trucker, who has owned his own company since 1981.
"There are a lot of accidents created by texting," Palmer said. "I see that on the news every day where someone is running into somebody because they're texting."
Commercial drivers have not been allowed to text while driving since July in South Dakota, Hartley said, after the state Legislature adopted an earlier rule change during its 2011 session. The U.S. DOT and Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration banned texting while driving a commercial vehicle in 2010.
In South Dakota, commercial drivers can either be pulled over if seen texting and cited or cited if texting is believed to have been a factor in an accident, Hartley said.
"There's kind of a thought out there that it's very difficult to enforce. If you think about it, everyone has seen someone who is texting. You can tell if someone is texting," Hartley said. "It's the same in a truck."
According to the DOT, many of the country's large truck and bus companies, including UPS, Covenant Transport, Walmart, Peter Pan and Greyhound, already have policies in place that ban their drivers from using handheld phones while driving.
The American Trucking Association, which represents 50 affiliated state trucking associations and related conferences and councils, also came out in support of the new restrictions.
"The trucking industry is very good about policing itself," Hartley said. "They identify problems, and they self-correct."
At the Pilot Travel Center on Deadwood Avenue, truckers had mixed feelings about the ban.
Charles Cortesio of Missoula, Mont., started driving a truck about four years ago as a second career and said he feels like the federal government is just singling out truck drivers to make money from the hefty fines.
"It's a joke," Cortesio said. "They're not going after the four-wheelers who I see talking all day long on their cellphones."
But he said he will abide by the new rules, because he can't risk his commercial driver's license.
"I'm not going to do anything to lose my truck," Cortesio said.
Kelly Taft of Spearfish drives for Trimac Transportation in Rapid City and said he should have no problem complying with the ban because he already uses a hands-free headset on his phone. So do most of the truckers he knows.
"It's our business. Our business is by cellphones," Taft said. "I never leave home without it."
That said, he agreed with Cortesio that it is really the cars that are the problem, not trucks.
"We're out there every day doing our job. You take the people who work in Rapid and live in Sturgis and the minute they hit the interstate they are on their cell phone," Taft said. "They're the ones who scare me."
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