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Distracted driving is a growing problem for operators of all types of vehicles, including trains. In fact, the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), which is the agency with authority to enforce federal railroad safety laws, discovered numerous examples proving the danger of distracting electronic devices. Those examples include six serious train accidents that occurred between May 2002 and September 2008.

A Sept. 12, 2008, head-on collision between a Southern California Regional Rail Authority Metrolink commuter train and a UP freight train in Chatsworth, Calif., resulted in 25 deaths, numerous injuries and more than $7 million in damages. The National Transportation Safety Board stated that a cell phone owned by the commuter train engineer was being used to send a text message within 20 seconds of the time of the accident.

According to FRA, although most railroads have rules or procedures in place that prohibit or restrict the use of electronic devices, such as cell phones and personal digital assistants, these company rules and procedures have not proven effective in preventing serious train accidents caused by unsafe use of such devices. In addition, in the course of regular inspection and enforcement activities, FRA railroad safety inspectors observed railroad employees using cell phones in an unsafe manner, often in contravention of existing railroad rules and instructions.

Finding that railroad operating employees were increasingly using cell phones and other electronic and electrical devices during railroad operations in violation of railroad operating rules, and in a manner and to an extent that these practices were distracting the users’ attention from safety-critical duties, the FRA issued Emergency Order (EO) 26, which restricts the improper use by railroad operating employees of certain electronic and electrical devices.

When FRA decided to issue the order, it had already received significant input from the Railroad Safety Advisory Committee working group on the issue of railroad operating employees using electronic devices.

After the EO was issued, FRA continued to work with stakeholders in developing proposed rules to amend its railroad communications regulations by restricting use of mobile telephone and other distracting electronic devices by railroad operating employees. The proposed rules were published in the Federal Register on May 18, 2010 (75 FR 27672-27690). Written comments were due June 17, 2010.

On Sept. 27, 2010,  the FRA published the final rule 75 FR 59580-59604 amending its railroad communications regulations by restricting use of mobile telephones and other distracting electronic devices by railroad operating employees. Emergency Order No. 26 will also be rescinded when the final rule takes effect, which is 180 days after its publication.

The final rule allows railroads 90 days to implement a program of instruction and an additional 90 days to actually instruct their employees.  When the final rule takes effect, all new and current railroad employees will have been instructed on the rule’s requirements.