Rules of the Road

Our distracted driving law has a commercial driver exception – here’s what it means

Question: The distracted driving law has an exception for commercial drivers, but what is the definition of that?

I drive a box truck used for construction. It’s registered in the company name and has the company name all over it. I have a regular driver license.

On any given day, I receive a minimum of 10 calls from the office or customers and make about the same number of outgoing calls. Yesterday, I pulled to the side of the road five times to talk on the phone, and twice a cop rolled past to see if I was in need. For the other calls, I was able to use the headset or sent them to voicemail, much to the chagrin of the callers.

Am I considered commercial or not?

Answer: First of all, thank you for pulling over to take your calls.

Yeah, it’s a little inconvenient, but you’re making the right choice. You’re also potentially saving lives and saving your employer millions of dollars.

In recent years drivers in company vehicles who were distracted by their phones were responsible for some serious crashes that killed or injured other drivers and incurred massive costs to their employers.

Here are a few national examples:

In Arkansas, salesperson talking on his phone crashed, injuring another driver; the settlement was $16.1 million.

In Texas, a driver was talking hands-free on a headset, according to company policy, when she crashed and seriously injured another driver; her company was found liable at a cost of $21 million.

And one more; a commercial truck driver in Missouri killed three people and injured 15 others while checking his text messages on the freeway; it cost the company $24.7 million.

As long as we’re talking numbers, the biggest settlement I’ve seen in a distracted driving crash involving an employee in a company vehicle is more than $49 million.

Side note: if you own or manage a business with employees that drive as part of their job, this might be a good time to establish or review your distracted driving policy. You can contact me if you’d like some help with that.

In regards to your question, you’re not a commercial driver. The Revised Code of Washington uses the term “commercial motor vehicle” driver, and a commercial motor vehicle is defined by law primarily by the vehicle weight or the number of passengers it can transport.

It also includes school buses and vehicles that transport hazardous materials, regardless of size.

These are the vehicles that require a commercial driver license (CDL) to operate. Even though the vehicle you drive for work is a company vehicle and you’re using it for commercial purposes, if it doesn’t require that you have a CDL, it doesn’t fit the definition of a commercial motor vehicle.

At first glance our state’s distracted driving law seems to exempt commercial motor vehicle drivers from having to abide by the requirements to leave our phones alone while driving.

Actually though, commercial vehicle drivers have to follow a federal law that was put in place several years before our state law. The federal law, established by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), is similar to our state law in that it prohibits any handheld use of a phone, but there is a big difference in the consequences.

The penalty for a distracted driving violation in Washington is a $136 fine for a first offense and $234 for a second violation. Compare that to the federal law that has fines of up to $2,750 for commercial vehicle drivers who use their phones while driving, and up to $11,000 for employers who allow it. Multiple violations can also result in the loss of a driver’s CDL.

Increased consequences for commercial vehicle drivers are not limited to distracted driving.

The FMCSA also sets the rules for impaired driving for commercial vehicle drivers, with a presumptive blood alcohol limit of .04 (half of our state’s presumptive level) and steep consequences for drivers. Whether it’s a tanker truck or a bus full of kids, a distracted or impaired commercial vehicle driver presents a greater risk to our community, and the penalties for violating the law reflect that risk.

Whatever vehicle you drive, whether it’s a commercial motor vehicle, a company truck, or your personal car, the law prohibits any hand-held use of your phone.

I’ll go one step further and encourage everyone to not use a phone at all, even hands-free, when driving. Brain scientists have confirmed that talking hands-free is just as distracting and dangerous as holding a phone and talking while driving. This is an instance where just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s a good idea.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.