Industry Groups Gear Up To Confront Communications Ban

Posted on October 21, 2009 by LCT Staff - Also by this author - About the author

NEW YORK — The ability of New York City chauffeurs to properly do their jobs hangs in the balance as the New York Taxi and Limousine Commission floats a proposal to ban electronic communications while driving — even the use of hands-free cell phoning, GPS navigation panels, and calls to and from dispatch centers.

If approved, the new rules would levy stiff fines and potentially revoke licenses of chauffeurs or cab drivers repeatedly caught using electronic devices while enroute. A public hearing on the issue will be held before the TLC votes on the new rules either in November or December, prompting several chauffeured transportation industry groups to go on the offensive to discourage a total ban.

The fight over cell phone usage behind the wheel puts two key imperatives at odds: 1) The need to avoid accidents caused by distracted drivers; 2) The need for chauffeurs in particular to efficiently get from point to point by staying in real time contact with dispatch and GPS navigation.

According to media reports, current laws only ban talking on cell phones. Proposed new laws would ban use of technology capable of making non-emergency Bluetooth/headset phone calls, texting, playing music, taking pictures, or distracting the driver in any manner while the vehicle is moving. GPS units are exempt if they are voice activated. Vehicles stopped at red lights would be subject to the rules as well, which require that the vehicle be parked before such devices can be used. The regulations would apply to all TLC-licensed drivers, including taxis, livery vehicles, limousines, and commuter vans.

For chauffeurs, having to pull over, stop, and park to use electronic devices — especially on the streets of Manhattan — would be highly impractical, if not impossible. Smaller/sole-proprietor and independent contractor single-vehicle operators often must make and receive business calls while traveling in between client runs.

Leaders of the National Limousine Association already held a conference call this week with industry association presidents to discuss the issue. A conference call scheduled Monday between NLA and the Taxi Limousine Paratransit Association officials will address the matter further and possibly yield a plan of action.

“In essence, we came away with the feeling that we must address this quickly with the TLC and come up with a counter proposal for this issue,” NLA President Ron Sorci told LCT in an e-mail. “We of course are all advocates of safe driving, however, there must be some type of compromise for our industry to be able to conduct communication between the drivers and their dispatch centers. A blanket ruling of non usage of phones and related equipment will make it impossible for us to properly conduct business.”

New York area chauffeured transportation groups such as the Luxury Base Operators Association and the Limousine Association of New York also have alerted members to the proposed rules.

“In my 22 years in this industry in the New York area, we have never had as many regulatory issues as we have now,” said Sergio Sanchez, president of LBOA. “This issue with the distracted driving is one we are going to fight tooth and nail. State law supersedes the city ordinances or city regulatory bodies, so we will fight this as a legislative issue encompassing the state.”

LBOA, which first alerted key industry leaders to the need for action, has interacted with the NLA and TLPA, and is working to set up and host a meeting of several industry groups later this month to come up with a plan to at least modify the rules for the benefit of luxury limousine chauffeurs. The Limousine Association of New York also plans a meeting for its members next Wednesday, Oct. 28 in New York City.

Sorci said the NLA has reached out NYTLC Commissioner Matt Daus to see how the groups can work with the TLC on establishing rules that ensure safety and the ability of chauffeurs to communicate. “This will have a major effect on how we conduct our business,” Sorci said. “Commissioner Daus has always been willing to work with us on issues and we hope that he will continue to do so on this issue.”

Commissioner Daus gave operators a heads up of the proposed rules during a recent meeting of the Luxury Base Operators Association where Daus sat on a panel with commissioners from Nassau and Westchester counties. Daus contends that using a cell phone while driving — even with hands-free devices — distracts drivers and incapacitates them as much as an intoxicated driver.

Nationwide Insurance has collected some statistics on why driving with a cell phone can be a hazard. The study determined that use of a cell phone while driving reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%. And drivers who use cell phones, even those that are hands free, can delay a driver's reaction as much as having a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit of .08%.

One industry leader, however, sounded a note of caution about the distracted driving rules this week in an e-mail to New York operators. Bill Carter, executive director of the Limousine Association of New York, wrote that media reports have been a bit too cut and dried, treating the proposal as inevitable. Carter wrote that the TLC simply discussed a proposal based on a presentation by a TLC staffer, while expressing interest in getting input from ground transportation industry groups and studying further the supposed effects of wireless communications on drivers.

Carter reported in his e-mail that the TLC chair, general counsel, and four commissioners were present at the meeting. Three of the commissioners said further studies are needed to determine how such rules would affect the ground transportation services. “One commissioner asked if the staff had reviewed the usage of cell phones, Nextels, and other communication devices throughout other portions of the industry (besides yellow cabs) to see if they are an integral part of the business function — which we know they are,” Carter wrote. The chair then asked staff to continue further study on this issue and promised to meet with segments of the industry to discuss possible revisions and details of the rules, Carter reported.

“Lets not go off half-cocked perceiving a battle when there may be no need for one,” Carter wrote. “The TLC seems open to discussion on this proposed rule and they seem amenable to the black car and the luxury segments of the industry meeting with them. The chair and the commissioners are aware that industry input is necessary to make changes work and they seem willing to talk about variations and possibilities.”

Source: Martin Romjue, LCT Magazine; New York Post

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