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After LA Train Crash, California Approves Cell Phone Ban

Sep 19, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

Nearly a week after the crash of a Los Angeles commuter train  killed 25 people,  California regulators approved a rule banning train operators from using cell phones while on duty.  The emergency order, which goes into effect immediately, was approved yesterday by a unanimous vote of the California Public Utility Commission.

The fatal Metrolink train crash occurred around 4:22 last Friday, near Chatsworth, California, at the west end of the San Fernando Valley.  Officials said 220 people were aboard the Metrolink train, which was heading from Union Station in downtown Los Angeles to Ventura County. The commuter train was traveling at 42 mph when it ran head-on into a Union Pacific freight train traveling in the opposite direction.  According to the  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the Metrolink train's engineer failed to stop at the final red signal, which forced the train onto a track where the Union Pacific freight was traveling.  

Yesterday, the NTSB confirmed that the engineer, who died in the accident, had been text messaging while working.  Shortly after the accident, two teenagers who had befriended the engineer said they had received text messages from him right before the crash.  The NTSB's investigation of cell phone has not determined yet if the driver was texting at the time of the crash.  

The new California rule imposes an immediate ban on the use of wireless devices by train engineers, conductors and brakemen while on duty. The only exception would be in emergencies, after a train has stopped and permission has been received from superiors.

Metrolink and other commuter railroad in California already have rules banning the use of cell phones and other electronic devices, but they lack enforcement power. Under the order approved Thursday, rail systems operating in California could be fined up to $20,000 per violation if employees are caught using cellphones. In some instances, rail service could be halted. Enforcing the ban will primarily be the responsibility of train services. But spot inspections by state workers will be conducted, and the public will be encouraged to report abuse.

There is currently no federal law banning railroad employees from using electronic devices while working.  In 2003, the NTSB urged the Federal Railroad Administration to adopt regulations to control the use of wireless communication devices by railroad employees.  The issue is still being studied.  

Meanwhile, the NTSB has cautioned that a cause for the train crash - cell phone use or otherwise - has not been determined.  In addition to text messaging, the NTSB is also looking at whether driver fatigue may have played a role in the Metrolink crash.  Robert  Sanchez,  the engineer of the doomed train, typically worked five days a week with back-to-back, split-shift schedules that began before dawn and ended at 9 p.m.

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