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California bans cellphone use by train drivers

/ Source: The Associated Press

State regulators have banned California train drivers from using cellphones in the wake of a deadly Los Angeles crash blamed on texting.

Federal regulators already have such a ban for national rails. The California ban extends that to regional lines such as the Bay Area Rapid Transit District, LA Metro and San Diego trolley.

The California Public Utilities Commission on Thursday unanimously voted to ban use of cellphones, pagers, satellite phones and other personal electronic devices by rail transit personnel. It makes permanent an emergency ban already in place.

Cameras will be placed in train operator cabs to enforce the ban.

The ban was prompted by a 2008 head-on crash between a Metrolink commuter train and a freight train in Chatsworth. Twenty-five people died and more than 100 were hurt.

Engineer Robert Sanchez had been warned twice about cellphone use while on duty.

Despite that warning, the engineer sent and received 43 text messages and made four phone calls the day of the collision, federal records show.

Sanchez was killed in the collision.

Text messages indicated he had allowed a teenager to ride in the cab several days before the crash, and that he was planning to let him run the train between four stations on the evening of the crash.

"I'm gonna do all the radio talkin' ... ur gonna run the locomotive & I'm gonna tell u how to do it," Sanchez wrote in one text message four days before the crash.

Last month, the National Transportation Safety Board endorsed a rule that would ban all commercial truckers and bus drivers from any use of cellphones while driving.

The NTSB enthusiastically endorsed the ban after ruling on a fiery Kentucky wreck that killed a trucker and 10 people in a van on their way to a wedding. The board said the trucker was distracted by his hands-free cellphone.

NTSB Chairman Deborah Hersman said similar recommendations about phone use have already been made in aviation and for ship operators. CB radio use would not be affected.

The NTSB lacks the authority to make such regulations. It sent its recommendation to the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and all 50 states for action.

The U.S. Department of Transportation bars commercial drivers from texting while driving, and violators are subject to civil penalties of up to $2,750. Some states ban everyone from using hand-held cellphones while driving.