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9:48 pm EST        28°F (–2°C) in Roland, OK

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As you can see, I managed to move some 1,280 miles (2,060 km) between Wednesday afternoon and late last night; I arrived here to hand off that California-bound load to another driver at roughly 3:30 am EST this past morning. There was a little confusion between myself, dispatch, and the other driver that caused our originally-planned meeting across the state line in Fort Smith, AR to fall through; but the hand-off did occur here, 10 miles (16 km) west, around 10:00 am EST this morning.

It was brought to my attention earlier this week that my company has a policy against using a cell phone, even one with a headset or other hands-free device, while driving. Specifically, this occurred Thursday afternoon, as I was attempting to answer a question from my dispatcher more quickly than I could have via the Qualcomm messaging unit. (The Qualcomm is wired in such a way that it cannot be used while the truck is moving — one must stop the truck to use it.) I was told that he would not assist me on the phone, as per this policy, and that I was to stop before I could answer the question in any medium.

Needless to say, there are a number of very serious problems with such a policy, not the least of which is its ridiculous unenforceability. (How can it be enforced, honestly — the honor system? tattling by other drivers? black UN helicopters every mile on every Interstate?) Furthermore, it hampers the company’s day-to-day operations in those situations where dispatchers, planners, etc. need quick or immediate responses to their questions; I can say, with a fair degree of confidence, that the half-hour my dispatcher had to waste waiting for my response delayed his search for the relay of that load from Thursday to yesterday. Finally, if immediate response is needed, my five-year experience has shown that using a phone with a headset is far safer than pulling over to the shoulder — and state legislatures agree with me. (No state has yet banned cell phone use with a headset while driving; nearly two dozen states have recognized the hazards posed by vehicles on the shoulder, and have passed laws requiring motorists to move out of the right lane for emergency vehicles on the shoulder.)

Yesterday afternoon, I made a phone call to our vice-president of safety to discuss these concerns. He admitted that the policy has the flaws I mentioned above, but also said that no matter what a dispatcher may say, we drivers are not to stop in a potentially unsafe place simply to respond to messages. To me, this means that on the vast majority of Interstates, stops for messaging will have to wait for the next rest area, service plaza, or truck stop — in other words, a safe, legal place to stop and sit, somewhere off the road, whether that be five miles away or 50 — and if a dispatcher doesn’t like having to wait for an answer, tough. The aforementioned VP agreed with me on that point, telling me to let him know if any dispatcher does bother me for failure to respond quickly.

The other problem I have with this policy is that it smacks more of safety theater than real safety. That is to say, the policy does little or nothing to improve real safety, mostly because it is so unenforceable (except when drivers try to contact company personnel); but it is designed to make it look like we’re really safe, so that jury awards in accident lawsuits might be kept lower. Believe me, I know how litigious and greedy people become when they have been in any kind of truck-involved accident, even when the truck driver was absolutely NOT at fault (cf. the $20 million award to the family of a young woman who was killed when her drunk friend hit a parked rig); considering that, there is some validity to this concern from a bottom-line standpoint, but as I said, it does little or nothing to improve actual road safety.

Ultimately, it is up to every individual driver to reduce or effectively mitigate distractions while driving. Almost anything can be a distraction: the radio or CB, the kids screaming in the back seat, the billboards by the side of the highway, and beautiful roadside scenery can all be just as dangerous, if not maybe even more so, than using a cell phone with a headset or hands-free device. (Let it be noted for the record that I believe headset use is much safer than handheld use, and in fact I support mandatory-headset laws such as those in New York state and Connecticut.) It is my professional judgment, as a CDL holder with close to half a million miles (around 800,000 km) in all types of vehicles over the last decade, that cell phone use with a headset while driving is not sufficiently distracting to be unsafe, if it is done correctly.

There are things that I think cell phone users should do to make in-motion use less distracting, in addition to using a headset. All of your commonly-used numbers should be programmed into your phone’s speed-dial memory, and you should remember the speed-dial codes for those people; this allows you to press only one or two numbers instead of the full 10-digit phone number, so you spend less time looking at something other than the road. Your headset should have a cord that is long enough to allow you to put the phone down somewhere, say on your passenger seat, so that you can devote both hands to the driving task. Don’t even begin to think about writing anything down or taking any dictation while you are moving — if you can’t remember it, call back after you have stopped and ask to have it repeated. Finally, if you do have any other unavoidable distractions like screaming kids, or if the weather isn’t all that great, get off the damn phone and concentrate on the road.

Of course, all of the above advice could very well be moot for people who fail to drive in a defensive, safe manner even when they’re not on a cell phone. Proper speed for the weather, traffic, and road conditions, proper following distance for the speed, and constant vigilance and monitoring of all 360° of your surroundings are required for safe driving, no matter whether you’re on a phone or not. I know from previous experience that I am perfectly and eminently capable of all of these even while on the phone. That said, in spite of that fact, I have to respect the fact that, as the VP of safety put it, “this is [their] company and [they] can make the rules.”

All right, time for bed. We’ll see what they offer me for my next load tomorrow.