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Waste Companies, Workers Adapting to Phone Ban

January 23, 2012
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Trash collectors around the country are getting used to stringent federal rules that severely restrict the use of cell phones while they are behind the wheel.

New regulations from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration made it illegal for drivers of all commercial motor vehicles to operate their vehicles while talking on the phone—with a few exceptions.

And if someone is of a mind to skirt the rule, the financial repercussions could be significant for both the driver and the company.

The rules, which went into effect at the beginning of the year, prohibit drivers from dialing or even reaching for their cell phones while driving.

Offenders face penalties of $2,750—a month´s salary for some—and companies could be fined up to $11,000 for failure to require their drivers to comply with the rules.

The regulations, the federal government said, will improve safety by "reducing the prevalence of distracted driving-related crashes, fatalities and injuries" involving commercial motor vehicle drivers.

As the longtime safety director for Rumpke Consolidated Companies Inc., a suburban Cincinnati-based trash company, Larry Stone sees the new rules as beneficial, but challenging.

The solid waste industry, just like other businesses, has grown to heavily rely on the use of cellphones, he said. So limiting their use will take some adaptation.

"It´s going to be a change for us, and we´ve adopted the change," he said. "I hope people will look at this policy as something that has a huge safety benefit to discourage distracted driving."

Rumpke, he said, has developed a way to alert drivers when they are needed. A single attempted call to a driver means the person should contact the caller whenever it´s convenient and legal. Three successive attempts to call means the driver should find a safe place to park, apply the brake and only then return the call, Stone said. Drivers should not attempt to actually answer the phone while driving.

"For our drivers, they are not permitted to use a cellular phone device anytime while they are on route, on the public roadway," he said.

All company drivers, not just those with commercial vehicles, have been given a set of rules governing use of cellphones and were required to sign a document stating they understand the new procedures. That includes managers.

"We don´t want managers in a pickup truck calling an employee in a commercial vehicle encouraging them to violate the rule," Stone said.

In a statement, Anne Ferro, administrator of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, called the new rule "a giant leap for safety. It´s just too dangerous for drivers to use a hand-held cellphone 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."

There are some limited circumstances where garbage truck drivers can still use their cellphones, the federal government said.

Wireless connection of a phone to allow hands-free operation and the use of single-button controls on a steering wheel or dashboard also is allowed, the agency said.

Drivers are not allowed to dial a cellphone while operating their vehicles, but they can "initiate, answer or terminate a call by touching a single button on a mobile telephone, earpiece, steering wheel or instrument panel," the agency said.

This action is comparable to using vehicle controls or performing instrument panel functions such as operating a radio or a heating and cooling system, the government said.

A phone must be in reach while a driver "is in the seated driving position and properly restrained by a seat belt," according to information from the agency.

Use of push-to-talk phones also is prohibited because the operator has to hold a phone while using this feature.

The agency stops short of requiring companies to create written policies governing employee conduct in this area, but companies remain responsible for their drivers' actions.

Republic Services Inc., the nation´s second largest trash company, said the rules will have no impact on its drivers.

That's because the company severely restricted cellphone use in 2003 and then completely banned their use by drivers in 2007, according to spokeswoman Peg Mulloy.

As senior manager of safety at Republic Services, Steve Martin is familiar with the new rules that went into effect Jan. 3.

"Republic Services has long recognized the negative impact associated with distracted driving and cellphone use. This rule just really reinforces the policies we´ve had in place," Martin said. "We don´t allow the use, period."

Drivers, Martin said, "will communicate with dispatch or a supervisor via some sort of mobile device when the truck is parked and stopped, not when driving."

Those not following the rules face discipline at both Republic Services and Rumpke.

"We do recognize distracted driving as one of the greatest hazards that our drivers do face in the field," Martin said.

Reaching for an object triples the odds of being involved in a crash or "other safety-critical event," according to agency research. Dialing a cellphone increases the odds by six times.

David Biderman, safety director and general counsel for the National Solid Wastes Management Association, has previously said new rules mean new behaviors.

"Commercial drivers are going to have to learn not to be on a hand-held phone while they are driving, or they may face a very significant fine," Biderman recently said. "And the company they work for, if they do not have a policy governing cellphone usage, will also potentially face a very significant fine."

The use of cellphones within the waste industry has become widespread just as it has in society in general, Rumpke´s Stone said.

"I don´t think it's going to have an adverse effect on productivity if it's managed properly," he said. "Communications is important, and we've grown to count on that for effective operation. I think this is just a bump in the road where we have to modify the form and manner in how we communicate with people. But we'll still get the job done. I don't feel that customer service will suffer by this regulation."

Jim Johnson writes for Waste & Recycling News, a sister publication of Workforce Management. To comment, email editors@workforce.com.

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