The U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) adopted a new rule ("Rule"), effective as of January 3, 2012, prohibiting commercial drivers covered by the DOT's regulations from using hand-held mobile devices while driving. The Rule permits commercial drivers to communicate by cell phones equipped with hands-free devices. The Rule carries stiff penalties for violators, and even includes potential liability for employers who require (or fail to prohibit) their commercial drivers from using hand-held cell phones on the job.

Combining rules proposed by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, DOT issued the Rule in response to a growing body of research indicating that cell phone use while driving is just plain dangerous. Studies cited in the rationale section of the new Rule found that the odds of being involved in a safety-critical event (i.e., an accident, a near-accident, or an unintended lane change) were three times more likely when a driver was reaching for an object in the passenger compartment and six times more likely when a driver was dialing a cell phone.

Accordingly, the Rule prohibits commercial drivers from reaching for a hand-held cell phone while driving, talking on a hand-held cell phone while driving and using one hand to dial a cell phone (defined as pressing more than one button) while driving. Notably, unlike many DOT provisions restricting commercial drivers, the new hand-held cell phone ban also applies to school bus drivers and the drivers of commercial passenger vehicles, but excludes certain military personnel, farmers, firefighters, government employees in the course of snow/ice removal and emergency responders.

Commercial drivers who violate the Rule will face significant penalties. A violation constitutes a "serious traffic violation," and if a driver gets two or more such citations, the driver may be disqualified from interstate commercial driving. Drivers also may be fined up to $2,750 for each offense.

Although the new Rule does not expressly require employers to adopt policies or offer training, it states that employer are prohibited from permitting or requiring drivers to use hand-held cell phones on the job. Employers that require their commercial drivers to use hand held cell phone and/or that do not prohibit hand held cell phone use while driving may be cited for the driver's violation of the Rule and fined up to $11,000 per violation. Given this potential exposure, companies that employ commercial drivers should review their policies and, as needed, should revise their policies or promulgate new policies to ensure compliance with the Rule.