Planes, trucks and now trains: Texting now under Federal attack on all fronts

Feds want fewer distractions for transportation professionals

The government today announced a proposed rule to stop the use of electronic devices by on-duty railroad employees; effectively going after yet another group of professionals who could harm the traveling public by texting or using other electronic devices while working. 

If adopted, the rules would explicitly restrict and in some cases prohibit the use of cell phones and other hand held devices such as personal digital assistants (PDAs) by safety critical employees, including locomotive engineers, conductors, switchmen, and other train employees, said US Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. Railroad employees would be permitted to use cell phones or similar electronic devices under highly limited situations. 

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The proposed rule comes from a Federal Railroad Administration  emergency order issued after a September 12, 2008 collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific Railroad freight train in Chatsworth, California, killing 25 people.  

Preliminary investigative findings revealed that the engineer operating the Metrolink train was text messaging at the time of the collision.  While longstanding railroad operating rules and EO 26 have restricted the use of electronic devices, FRA has determined that Federal regulations are necessary to more effectively prevent the inappropriate and unauthorized use of these devices on the job, the FRA stated. 

The US Transportation action follows the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) call last month for airlines to create and enforce policies that will limit distractions in the cockpit and keep pilots focused on transporting passengers safely. 

The FAA's Sterile Cockpit Rule prohibits pilots from engaging in any type of distracting behavior during critical phases of flight, including take-off and landing and the warning today reminds crewmembers and air carriers that any cockpit distraction that diverts attention from required duties can "constitute a safety risk."  This includes the use of personal electronic devices for activities unrelated to flight, the FAA stated. 

As ever-more high-tech device proliferate, laptops and other devices are becoming valuable tools for pilots to use in their routine duties, but they must only be used in the cockpit if they assist pilots in safely operating an aircraft, the FAA stated. 

Last October the pilots of Northwest 188 over-flew their destination by 150 miles because they claimed they were using their laptop computers for personal activities and lost situational awareness. In another instance, a pilot was texting after the aircraft pushed back from the gate and before the take-off sequence, the FAA stated. In still another instance, an  FAA inspector in the jump seat overheard a crewmember's mobile phone ring during the takeoff roll. 

Meanwhile on the ground, the US Department of Transportation said recently it wants to ban texting by commercial bus and truck drivers.  The department announced a federal rule that aims to specifically prohibit texting by interstate commercial truck and bus drivers. The proposed rule would make permanent an interim ban announced in January 2010 that applied existing safety rules to the texting issue. 

Commercial drivers, including those required to have "commercial driver's licenses," could face fines or operating disqualification if convicted of texting while driving, the department stated.  This rule would not affect talking on cell phones, or using devices like GPS or in-cab fleet management systems, the department is looking onto regulations about those activities as well.

 President Obama has already signed an Executive Order directing federal employees not to engage in text messaging while driving government-owned vehicles or with government-owned equipment. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8   

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