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Distracted Driving – Accidents Involving Cell Phones

Man driving while taking selfie

Over the past decade, smartphones have permeated just about every corner of our society, and changed everyday habits and the quality of life in myriad ways. Many of these changes have been for the better. But cell phones have also led to some serious problems, and one of these problems is that of distracted driving.

Now, distracted driving is nothing new. Cell phones have not created the problem, only exacerbated it. In the broadest sense, distracted driving simply means any activity which diverts your attention from the road, and is not necessary for the operation of the car, and drivers have been distracted in various ways since the car was first invented.

Common distractions include eating, drinking, applying makeup, adjusting the dial on the radio, or even talking to other people inside the car. If you’ve driven a car for any length of time, it’s likely that you’ve done many of these things, and almost certain that you’ve done at least a few.

However, cell phones change the equation entirely. It is only with the recent rise of smartphones that distracted driving has reached truly epidemic proportions.

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Texting and talking are major distractions for drivers. You might not think that it does a lot of harm to take your eyes off the road for a few seconds to send a text, but as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration points out, taking your eyes off the road for five seconds at 55 miles per hour is the equivalent of “driving the length of an entire football field with your eyes closed.”

If you’re going even faster than 55 miles per hour (for instance if you’re traveling at full freeway speeds) or if you send an even longer text, then you will be taking your eyes off the road for a greater distance still. And while you might feel safe if the road ahead of you looks clear, you never know what will come up; a car could suddenly change lanes in front of you, or slow down up ahead.

A few seconds can mean the difference between life and death while driving, and this is precisely why distracted driving, in all its forms, is so dangerous.

And it’s not just talking and texting, either. Lately, more and more people have been taking behind-the-wheel selfies when driving, or else sending Shapchats. These activities are just as dangerous as texting, if not more so, and no matter who you are, we’re willing to bet that you aren’t so beautiful that a selfie is worth putting your life in danger.

Putting Distracted Driving in Perspective

By now, just about everyone in our society is aware of the dangers of drunk driving. Children are raised, often from a young age, to know the consequences of driving drunk, and public and private actors have spent millions of dollars on massive awareness campaigns designed to dissuade the practice.

In addition to helping pass stricter and more clearly defined laws against drunk driving, these campaigns have succeeded in creating a culture where a strong stigma is attached to drunk driving. Although the practice still occurs, and more commonly than we would like, no one in America today can rightfully claim to be unaware of the potential legal and moral consequences associated with it.

All of this must be kept in mind to put the practice of distracted driving in its proper context.

Our society does not yet attach the same level of stigma to distracted driving that it does to drunk driving. Admittedly, awareness has grown rapidly over the past few years, but for all too many drivers, texting remains an “Oh, well, everybody does it” sort of thing, which they might feel vaguely guilty about but will not take any real steps to stop.

In fact, distracted driving is a problem which is comparable in scope to drunk driving, and claims a roughly analogous number of lives each year.

Thousands of Americans are killed annually, and hundreds of thousands injured, in collisions which involve distracted drivers. In 2015, these figures stood at 3,477 killed and 391,000 injured, according to the NHTSA. That’s a lot of deaths and injuries, and there’s a good chance that someone you know has been affected.

Admittedly, the death toll from distracted driving probably isn’t quite as high as the that for drunk driving; in the same year of 2015, over 10,000 people died in alcohol-related crashes, which is a fairly typical number.

However, these numbers don’t tell the full story. Some researchers speculate that the rate of distracted driving deaths is actually higher than the federal government estimates, perhaps even twice as high.

There are a few reasons for this: unlike with DUI, the standards for determining whether a crash was caused by distracted driving often differ between jurisdictions, and a few areas don’t even keep track of them at all. It can be difficult to prove that a crash was caused by distracted driving, and many crash reports do not include any mention of it even when it did occur.

Whatever the true number, one thing is certain: there has been a spike in auto accidents in recent years, and 2015 had the highest percentage increase in traffic deaths from the previous year in half a century. It is undoubtable that distracted driving is playing at least some role in all this.

Who is responsible for all of these distracted driving incidents? The data (as well as all available anecdotal evidence) is clear on this point as well: texting while driving is overwhelmingly a problem of teens and young adults.

A report from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that young drivers, in the age group 16-24, are by far the most likely to use cell phones while driving. Elderly drivers, on the other hand, are the least likely to talk or text while driving. Women are more likely to use phones while driving than men, and blacks are more likely than whites.

Of course, none of these trends are hard and fast. Over 75% of Americans now own smartphones, and the temptation to use these devices is so great that just about anyone with a phone and a license can cause a crash by wanton cell phone use, including the elderly.

Distracted Driving and the Law

Many states have passed laws against cell phone use while driving. The first to do so was Washington, in 2007, but over the past decade, almost every other state has followed suit.

Every state, except for Arizona, Missouri, and Montana, now has a law which bans all drivers from sending text messages while driving. And even Arizona and Missouri have partial text messaging bans, which apply to permit holders (in Arizona’s case) and drivers under 21 (in Missouri’s).

Texting is also banned in D.C., as well as Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In short, you’re not going to find many places where it’s okay to text and drive in the United States… and even where it’s legal, that doesn’t make it any safer.

Phone calls are a somewhat different matter. Drivers in every state are allowed to make calls on their cell phones in some circumstances, but a number of states have placed limits specifically on hand-held cell phone use, while still allowing phone calls to be made by drivers on hands-free devices.

The law is more complicated in some states, which go even further and ban cell phones (including those with hands-free devices) for young or novice drivers, or for school bus drivers. Before using any sort of cell phone while driving, you should become familiar with the precise laws for your particular state.

It is important to remember that distracted driving has always been illegal, even before any laws specifically dealing with phone use were put into place. There are a few different ways in which states address the problem in a legal sense. Some ban specific distracted driving activities, such as eating, drinking, reading, or smoking, while others place a more general prohibition on any activities which are not necessary to drive a vehicle and which impair the driver’s abilities.

In addition to these state laws, the federal government has passed regulations preventing truck drivers from texting or using cell phones while driving. Because truck drivers’ licenses (known as commercial driver’s licenses, or CDLs) are standardized at the federal level, this falls well within the purview of the federal government.

Aside from this, the federal government doesn’t have any direct power to pass laws banning texting and driving for ordinary drivers. However, it could use its indirect “power of the purse” to influence states to pass such laws, by passing laws which would revoke certain types of federal funding from any state which does not ban cell phone use while driving.

The federal government has already passed similar coercive laws regarding driving, including a law requiring states to set the speed limit on interstate highways at 55 (later repealed), and a law requiring states to raise the drinking age to 21, in both cases threatening to revoke federal funds from states which did not comply.

There is currently no similar federal law which would revoke federal funding from states that do not ban texting and driving, although there has been a push for such a law to be passed at the federal level. Will this come to pass in the next few years? Perhaps, but it’s doubtful: since most states seem to be taking the initiative on their own, there will likely be little need.

Finally, some local jurisdictions have also banned texting and driving, so be familiar with the rules in your own city, town, or municipality.

Primary and Secondary Enforcement

One issue which becomes relevant here is the issue of primary versus secondary enforcement. Although this is not technically a question of whether or not a certain activity is illegal, it has a major impact on how the law will be enforced in practice.

If a certain traffic offense is a primary offense, then the police can pull you over simply for that offense. If, however, it is a secondary offense, then it is still illegal, but police cannot pull you over for that offense alone. They must pull you over for something else, which must in itself be a primary offense, before being allowed to ticket you for the secondary offense.

This is an important distinction, and is often a significant topic of controversy when proposing a traffic law. For instance, when driving without a seat belt was first made illegal, there was much debate over whether that should be a primary or secondary offense.

In most states, texting and driving, or else using a hand-held mobile phone while driving, is a primary offense, and police can pull you over for that alone. However, in a few states, these are secondary offenses, and other distracted driving activities such as eating or drinking while driving are often secondary offenses as well.

Just because an offense is a secondary offense, however, doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. If the police really want, they’ll probably find a reason to pull you over. Traffic law is complex, after all, and most of us are probably guilty of more minor traffic violations than we’d like to admit to ourselves.

And if you get in an accident while talking or texting, your use of a cell phone will likely still be used as evidence of negligence in court, regardless of whether your actions were a primary or secondary offense. You don’t want this; it will make your case much harder!

Even if the other party was at fault, if it can be shown that you were texting, then your damages may be reduced as per the rules of comparative negligence (by which you receive fewer damages than you otherwise would have if you were partly negligent in a crash).

What About Using GPS Navigation?

It seems like just about everybody has a GPS navigation app of some sort on their phones, and these apps can come in handy whenever you find yourself on unfamiliar roads or driving to an unfamiliar destination. But using your phone to navigate can be just as dangerous as texting while driving.

The use of GPS apps, as it pertains to distracted driving, is something of a legal grey area in many jurisdictions. However, the best protocol to follow involves not holding your phone while driving, and instead mounting it in accordance with the laws of your state.

GPS navigation apps are controversial as they pertain to distracted driving: on one hand, most drivers would be loath to forgo using such apps entirely, while on the other hand, these apps are clearly dangerous if a driver pays too much attention to them and neglects the road.

Overall, the best rule of thumb is to use your good sense and natural prudence with GPS apps, and keep in mind that taking your eyes off the road, even for a few seconds, to look at such an app is just as dangerous as sending a text message, and may have the same consequences.

What About Talking to People in the Car?

There’s good reason to believe that talking on a cell phone, even hands-free, can cause a problem. But what if you are talking to other passengers in the car? Drivers do this all the time. So what are we supposed to do if we really want to stop distracted driving? Pass a law requiring that drivers and passengers sit in stony silence for the duration of the trip?

Of course, such a law would run up against personal liberty concerns, and even if it did end up making the roads marginally safer, would probably be vigorously opposed as a move not worth the price that it requires drivers to pay in freedom. But even though it likely won’t be made illegal anytime soon, passenger distraction can be a problem.

Passengers can pose all sorts of distractions, especially for teenage drivers, or in instances when the passenger is behaving in an especially attention-getting way. This just goes to show that “distracted driving” involves more than just cell phones.

At the same time, there’s reason to believe that talkative passengers are not as distracting as conversation partners on cell phones. This is because passengers are inside the vehicle with the drivers, and they can see the road conditions and respond to them by staying silent when the driver is facing a tough patch of road. In fact, an attentive passenger might even help the driver by pointing out unforeseen dangers.

So, it’s far from a settled proposition that passenger distraction is a serious problem. And even if it is, it’s difficult to see passenger distraction (which has been an inherent risk since the earliest days of the car) as an “epidemic” in the way that cell phone use is. If passenger distraction is no less of a problem now than it always has been, at least it cannot be said to be any more of a problem, either.

In fact, technologies such as cell phones might even have the unexpected benefit of decreasing passenger distraction, by keeping passengers busy on their phones rather than talking to drivers. But that’s just a little bit of conjecture on our part…

What About Listening to the Radio?

This is another one of those problems that has been around for most of the time since the car was invented: listening to the radio. The first car radios were invented in the early 1930s, allowing drivers to listen to music and other programs while behind the wheel for the first time.

Later, cassette tapes and CDs, came along, and more recently drivers have been turning to podcasts. Listening to some form of program has become a staple of driving in our culture, but does this have any effect on driver distraction?

Well, the studies on this are mixed. Some studies show that listening to the radio does have a significant negative impact on driving. Other studies, however, show little to no impact, or perhaps even a positive one by helping drivers focus on the road.

Still, there are certain dangers inherent in using the radio, and there is no doubt that taking your eyes off the road to adjust the radio dials for any length of time is dangerous. So try to adjust your stations before you set out, and don’t spend too much time doing it on the road.

Also, if the radio is turned up too loud, this may make it harder to hear important noises outside the car (such as other engines, or horns honking) that might be a sign of an impending danger. So if you are listening to the radio while driving, turn the volume down to a reasonable level… which is better for your ears anyway.

In Summary

Most likely, you already had some idea of the scope of the distracted driving problem, which has fortunately been receiving increased attention in recent years. More awareness can only be a good thing, and hopefully we’ve done our part to raise awareness with this piece.

If you have ever texted while driving, we’re not here to lecture or judge you. Smartphones have become so ubiquitous so quickly in our society over the past few years that it isn’t always easy to resist temptation. In fact, smartphone “addiction” (if we’re allowed to use that phrase for it) can cause a lot of problems, of which distracted driving is only one.

For this reason, it is likely that any solution to the distracted driving problem will have to be a holistic one, taking into account the problem of impulse control as it pertains to cell phone use at all times, and not just when behind the wheel.

And sure enough, the evidence seems to indicate that distracted driving is disturbingly common: the NHTSA estimates that around 4% of drivers are speaking into handheld phones, and around 2% are texting, at any given moment.

The problem is so prevalent that it even implicates a lot of people who really should know better, including an Oregon legislator who supported a law imposing tougher punishments on distracted drivers. (To be fair, all she did was try to navigate, but so did a lot of other drivers who have been cited for distracted driving, and as mentioned above, this can still be dangerous.)

So, you’re not a bad person if you’ve ever a snuck quick glance at your phone while driving, or crammed down a Pop Tart in traffic while late for work, but you know the risks, and we think that you can come to your own conclusions about whether or not this is a good idea, both for your own sake and that of the countless other innocent people you are sharing the road with.

Unless there’s a real emergency (and in that case, you would probably be best served pulling over to the side of the road), is there really any phone call or text message worth the risk? We think you know the right answer deep down, and we hope that you will do your part to decrease the risk of distracted driving and make the roads just a little bit safer.

One Final Note: The Future of Distracted Driving

It’s hard to say what lies in the future for distracted driving. With the likely impending rise of self-driving cars over the next few years, distracted driving (along with other common factors contributing to driver error such as drunk, drugged, and drowsy driving) might become an obsolete problem. If the car is doing all the driving, you have nothing to lose by sitting back with your phone (or a book or any other distraction, for that matter).

This is intriguing, because it means that a problem which has been created (or at least exacerbated) by technology may, in its turn, be solved by technology. But self-driving cars have their own problems, and it will be awhile before they are ubiquitous on our roads, so don’t let the prospect of new technology absolve you of your responsibility to drive safely!

In fact, partially autonomous cars might even lead to an increase in certain types of distracted driving accidents, by giving drivers a false sense of security to take their eyes and minds off the road, and place their faith in a still-imperfect navigation system.

Aside from this, laws dealing with distracted driving will probably grow harsher in the near future, as awareness increases of the problem… just as laws dealing with drunk driving grew much stricter over the course of several decades, as the problem came into the forefront of national consciousness.

At the same time, these laws might run up against concerns that they are criminalizing a broad range of fairly common driver behavior (such as using navigation apps). Will this lead to people concluding, a few years or decades from now, that distracted driving laws have gone too far? Once again, only time will tell.

In the meantime, distracted driving, in all of its forms but most particularly in the use of smartphones, continues to be a serious and life-destroying problem for far too many. And the initiative to change it begins with you.

For more information on how Torklaw is taking tangible steps to eradicate the problem of distracted driving on our roads, check out our firm’s Don’t Text and Drive Campaign.