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KAT drivers restricted from talking on phone while driving

Drivers with Kandiyohi Area Transit will no longer be able to talk on cell phones while behind the wheel of a bus due to a new rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. Drivers must now pull over and respond to cell phone calls. Hands-free devices, however, are still allowed. Tribune photo

WILLMAR -- A new federal law that prohibits bus drivers from using hand-held cell phones while driving is expected to improve transit safety, but Kandiyohi Area Transit riders are experiencing slightly delayed service because of the change.

The new rule from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, which went into effect Jan. 3, prohibits bus drivers from holding a mobile telephone to conduct voice communications. Hands-free devices are allowed.

In the past KAT drivers used cell phones to take calls from the dispatch ce-nter, which relayed re-quests from passengers to be picked up for same-day service at various locations, such as a clinic or retail shop.

The instant communication allowed drivers to alter their route and respond quickly to pick up passengers, said KAT Transit Director Tiffany Collins during the operations meeting Tuesday.

Now drivers must pull over and stop the bus before responding to a cell phone call.

That sometimes means drivers go past the very location a passenger is at in order to get to a safe place to take a call. Buses may have to reverse course to pick up passengers, which can delay service.

"It's a learning curve for us," said Collins, who supports the rule change.

Collins said she is exploring different communication options, including hands-free devices or a one-button speaker to install in buses.

KAT drivers that are caught using the cell phone while driving will face penalties.

The mild winter weather has had a negative effect on KAT ridership. More people have been riding bikes or walking, which reduced the number of riders from typical winter months. The snow this week has resulted in an increase in calls for bus service, according to recent rider records.

The board members also said they would like to conduct a rider survey. Staff will compile a list of questions that may be included in the survey. It's not known when the survey will be conducted.

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

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