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Distracted Driving – Accidents Involving Cell Phones

Man driving while taking selfie

Over the past decade, smartphones have permeated our society, changing everyday habits and our quality of life in myriad ways. Many changes have been for the better, but mobile phones have also led to serious problems, one of which is distracted driving.

Distracted driving is disturbingly common: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that around 4% of drivers are using handheld phones, and around 2% are texting, at any given moment.

Cell phones did not create the problem of distracted driving. In the broadest sense, distracted driving means focusing on any activity that diverts your attention from the road, and is not necessary for the operation of the car: for example, eating, drinking, applying makeup, adjusting the stereo, or talking to passengers. Most of us have done these things; however, the rise of smartphones has brought distracted driving to epidemic proportions.

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Texting and talking on the phone are major distractions for drivers. You might not think it does a lot of harm to take your eyes off the road to send a quick text, but doing this for even five seconds, at 55 miles per hour, is the equivalent of driving the entire length of a football field blindfolded. While the road ahead may look clear, a car could suddenly pull in front of you. That few seconds could mean the difference between life and death.

Lately, more people have been taking behind-the-wheel selfies or videos when driving. These activities are just as dangerous as texting, and certainly not worth putting your life in danger.

Putting Distracted Driving in Perspective

Everyone is aware of the dangers of drunk driving, thanks to stricter laws against it, and campaigns that created a strong stigma to driving under the influence. Our society does not yet attach the same level of disgrace to distracted driving.

In fact, distracted driving is a problem that is comparable in scope to drunk driving, having claimed 3,450 lives in 2016, according to the NHTSA, and injured 391,000.

Some researchers speculate the rate of distracted driving deaths is even higher than these estimates, because unlike driving under the influence, the standards for determining if a crash was caused by distracted driving are complex and differ between jurisdictions, or may not be tracked at all.

Who is responsible for all these distracted driving incidents? NHTSA data shows 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.

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.

The first state to pass laws against cell phone use while driving was Washington, in 2007. Over the past decade, every state, except for Arizona, Missouri, and Montana, has banned all drivers from sending text messages while driving. 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., Puerto Rico, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Phone calls are a somewhat different matter. Drivers in every state can make calls on their cell phones in some circumstances, but several 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. Some states ban mobile phone use (including those with hands-free devices) for young or novice drivers, or school bus drivers. Also, some local jurisdictions have also banned texting and driving, even when their state does not, so it’s important to be familiar with the laws for your particular state and city.

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. Some states ban specific distracted driving activities, such as eating, drinking, reading, or smoking, while others place a more general prohibition on any activities that impair the driver’s abilities and are not necessary to drive a vehicle.

In addition to these state laws, the federal government has passed regulations preventing truck drivers from texting or using cell phones while driving. 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 pass laws that would revoke certain types of federal funding from states that do not ban cell phone use while driving. The federal government has already passed similar laws, 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 that did not comply.

Primary and Secondary Enforcement

One issue on how existing laws around cell phone usage will be enforced is one of primary versus secondary enforcement. A primary offense is one for which the police can pull you over for that offense. A secondary offense is one that is still illegal, but police cannot pull you over for that reason alone. They must pull you over for a primary offense before they can ticket you for the 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, but that doesn’t mean you’re in the clear. Traffic law is complex, after all, and it is probably not difficult for a police officer to catch many of us in a primary offense at some point.

And if you are in an accident while talking or texting, your cell phone use will be used as evidence of negligence in court, even if the other party was at fault, meaning your damages may be reduced or denied altogether.

What About Using GPS Navigation?

The use of GPS navigation is something of a legal grey area in many jurisdictions, as it pertains to distracted driving. On one hand, if we are unfamiliar with the area, we may need the app to get to where we’re going. On the other hand, these apps may be dangerous if a driver pays too much attention to them and neglects the road.

If you use your phone’s GPS app in the car, it is best to invest in a mounting device, so you don’t need to hold your phone while driving, and to use good sense in keeping your eyes on the road, instead of the map, as much as possible. If you’re really lost, you might want to pull over to confirm your route.

What About Talking to People in the Car?

If talking on a cell phone, even hands-free, is considered a distraction, what about talking to other passengers in the car? Drivers do this all the time. If we really want to stop distracted driving, do we need to pass a law requiring drivers and passengers sit in stony silence for the duration of the trip?

Of course, that’s unrealistic. Passengers can pose all sorts of distractions, but because passengers are inside the vehicle with the drivers, and they also see the road conditions and can respond appropriately. In fact, an attentive passenger might even help the driver by pointing out unforeseen dangers.

What About 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, CDs, and podcasts were introduced. Listening to some form of audio entertainment has become a staple of driving in our culture.

Some studies show listening to the radio does have a significant negative impact on driving, while other studies show little to no impact, or even a positive one by helping drivers stay alert.

You can avoid the dangers inherent in using audio systems while driving by setting your station or playlist before you set out, so you don’t need to do it on the road. Also, turn the volume down so you can hear noises outside the car (sirens, horns, or other engines) that alert you to impending danger.

The Future of Distracted Driving

With recent research into self-driving cars, the problem of driving while distracted by technology might actually be solved by technology. But partially autonomous cars could 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.

Laws dealing with distracted driving may grow harsher, just as laws dealing with drunk driving grew stricter as the problem came into the forefront of national consciousness.

In the meantime, distracted driving in all its forms, but most particularly in the use of smartphones, continues to be a dangerous problem. Smartphones have become so ubiquitous in our lives that it isn’t always easy to resist temptation. For this reason, it is likely that any solution to the distracted driving problem will have to be a holistic one — and the initiative to change begins with you.

TorkLaw fully supports efforts to end distracted driving, and improve safety on the road. We are also dedicated to representing victims involved in serious accidents due to someone else’s negligence. If you’ve been injured in an accident, call us at (888) 845-9696.

Reza Torkzadeh - California Personal Injury Lawyer

A highly regarded and well-respected trial lawyer, author and speaker, Reza Torkzadeh is the founder and managing attorney of TorkLaw – a premier plaintiff’s personal injury law firm specializing in complex catastrophic injury and wrongful death cases.

Reza’s performance in and out of the courtroom has earned him several of the industry’s top awards and professional recognitions, and a reputation as an elite litigator. He has earned millions in settlements, verdicts, and judgments for his clients.

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