The Dangers and Legal Ramifications of Distracted Driving

The concept of distracted driving has existed since the car was invented. Before cell phones, there were far fewer ways to be distracted. Back then it was folded maps and, come 1930, radio dials. Now that cell phones and GPS systems have been thrown into the mix, there has been an exponential rise in fatalities and injuries related to distracted driving.

Distracted driving has a refined definition that doesn’t include everything which might keep you from being 100 percent focused on the road. Spacing out, looking elsewhere or dozing off are not included. Things like talking to passengers, using a cell phone, playing with the radio or eating all fall under this definition. Basically, any time the driver is performing a “task” other than driving, they are distracted. The distinction is important for law enforcement, insurance companies, and gathering statistics on the cause of car crashes.

How Big of a Problem is Distracted Driving?

Cell phones have become a one-stop shop for anything we need. Directions, texts, the internet, games; everything is at our fingertips. This perceived ease of communication has led to a dramatic increase in cell phone usage while driving. A survey conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests that two-thirds of drivers talk on their phone while driving, one-third of whom have sent or received text messages while driving. Research suggests that hands-free devices don’t provide much help, because this still creates a cognitive distraction.

This refers to a person who may very well have their eyes on the road, but are not aware of what’s going on around them. You can chew gum and walk at the same time, but this combines a thinking task with a non-thinking one. Driving and talking on the phone are both a thinking task, which means that even if your eyes are up, you’re still not totally processing what you’re seeing on the road. It’s likely that you’ve said to yourself, “I don’t remember any of what I saw while driving from point A to point B.” It’s estimated that drivers fail to process up to 50 percent of what they see while talking on the phone, but hands-free devices still provide a false sense of security to many drivers. San Diego car accident lawyer Scott Liljegren whose practice is focused on motor vehicle accidents told us “Distracted driving accidents are heavily under-reported, so there’s no doubt in my mind that the actual statistics are much higher than what is actually reported.”

Car companies are now inundating their advertisements with how hands-free the new models are. Research shows that voice-activated devices provide more distraction, rather than a relief of it. There are laws against the use of hand-held devices in some states, but none have specific language regarding hands-free devices. When using a cell phone in any regard causes a delayed reaction similar to having a Blood Alcohol Content of .08, and you are at a four times greater risk of being in an accident.

One company even filmed traffic to find out just how prevalent distracted driving is on an average day. In just 20 minutes, they found that 8.6 percent of drivers were distracted, 81 percent of whom were using their cell phone. Studies have found that up to 80 percent of accidents and 65 percent of near-accidents can be attributed to distracted driving. So it’s easy to see that no innovation when it comes to communicating while driving will take away the problem of distraction.

What Has Been Done to Curb Distracted Driving?

No pun intended there, but more states are joining the effort to decrease distracted driving involving cell phone use. Most of these efforts have been related to texting while driving, and the statistics for this show why so much attention has been paid to this specific cause of accidents. A crash is most likely to happen within three seconds of being distracted, and texting increases the chances of an accident by 23 percent.

A bill was even introduced in Vermont that would allow police officers to search your phone without a warrant to see if you’ve been active on it recently. It hasn’t made it out of committee and is not likely to pass, as it is borderline Unconstitutional. Alaska charges a $10,000 fine for texting and driving. Fair or not, it shows that states are getting very serious in their efforts to decrease distracted driving.

The increased fines and new penalties for cell phone use while driving appears to have helped. In 2014, there were 3,184 deaths due to distracted driving, which accounted for 10 percent of accidents overall. That number was much higher in 2009, when there were 5,474 fatalities as a result of distracted driving. All but two states have laws against texting while driving, but more than half have no laws when it comes to talking on the phone. So it stands to reason that this number could continue to decline if more states enact these laws.

What Legal Recourse is There for Distracted Driving?

If you are involved in an accident with a distracted driver, there is a good chance that they will be found responsible for all damages caused. It’s not just ambulance chasers either, judges, prosecutors, and police departments are cracking down. If you have to sue for those damages, cell phone use by the other driver can be used as evidence to determine if distractions could have caused the accident. 

If you are using your cell phone and are hit by someone else, receiving compensation is very unlikely, even if you were not at fault. You could’ve been hit from behind, or been hit by someone running a red light, but if you were using your cell phone at the time, it’s likely that you will be attributed with negligence. Depending on the state, there are two types of negligence. Comparative, which means that if you are found to be 40 percent at fault, you’ll only receive 60 percent in damages. And contributory, which means that even if you are only 5 percent at fault, you won’t receive any compensation at all.
It’s likely that we’ve all talked on our phone, eaten food or played with the radio dial while driving. Even if you are keeping your eyes on the road while doing this, your reaction time is greatly decreased. And as we’ve seen, more and more laws are being created that could find you facing a hefty fine if law enforcement determines you to be distracted while driving.

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