Distracted Driving: A Disturbing New Trend

“I just looked down for a second.”

“I looked up, and there he was.”

“I turned to look at my kid, and when I turned back, I didn’t have time to stop.”

Unfortunately, these kinds of statements are all too common. They frequently are offered as excuses by distracted drivers for an inexcusable act—the act of driving while not paying 100 percent attention to the road and causing a collision which injures or kills another person.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (“NHTSA”) very succinctly states the primary responsibility of a driver: to operate a motor vehicle safely. NHTSA defines three categories of distracted driving:

  • Visual: taking your eyes off the road
  • Manual: taking your hands off the wheel
  • Cognitive: taking your mind off what you’re doing

Texting Increases Crash Risk 23 Times

All three of these categories of distraction are embodied in the latest and possibly most dangerous of trends in distracted driving: cell phone use. Texting while driving causes the driver to be looking down at a device (visual) in his or her hand (manual), while thinking about something other than the operation of the vehicle (cognitive). Texting while driving is so dangerous that the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute found texting creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted.

The results are catastrophic: NHTSA reports that in 2012, 3,328 people were killed and 421,000 injured in crashes resulting from distracted drivers operating vehicles. Unfortunately, these figures are most likely understated. NHTSA Fatality Analysis Reporting System has found that there is no reliable method to definitely determine how many crashes really involved cell phone use—the reporting is simply not accurate enough. In the chaos following a collision involving injury or fatality, it can be difficult or impossible to determine who had a phone in their hand at the time of impact. Even if phone records eventually are gathered to determine cell phone use at the time of impact, crash reports may not be updated to reflect this new data, so statistics will not reflect it.

Cell Phones Involved in 21 Percent of Fatal Crashes with Young Drivers

Numbers, in any event, fail to reflect the very real, human cost to distracted driving. In 2013, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile enlisted the help of acclaimed director Werner Herzog to produce a public service announcement for their “It Can Wait” campaign. The 35 minute documentary tells the stories of several individuals—victims and perpetrators—affected by the act of texting while operating a motor vehicle. The documentary was distributed to 40,000 high schools; NHTSA reports that 21 percent of distracted drivers ages 15-19 years who are involved in fatal crashes were distracted by the use of cell phones. Of the victims, the messages were consistent—their lives were forever changed, or, tragically, ended by a text message. Of the perpetrators, the messages were equally consistent—the text messages that could not wait to be sent or read were meaningless or forgotten in the face of the human toll they took.

Cell Phone Usage also Leads to Legal Consequences

While there are no federal laws currently governing hands-on cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle, President Obama signed an executive order prohibiting federal employees or government contractors from texting while driving on government business or while using government equipment. Many states, including Oregon, have outlawed hands-on cell phone use while operating a motor vehicle.

In Oregon, the law banning cell phone use while driving allows primary enforcement—meaning police can pull drivers over and cite them when they are observed using a cell phone while driving and for no other reason. Drivers may be fined up to $500.00.

Texting while driving can lead to other legal ramifications. Personal injury lawsuits based on distracted driving are becoming more prevalent. Attorneys for distracted driving victims have been successful in bringing claims for punitive damages in some jurisdictions. Punitive damages are intended to punish misconduct. Such damages are recoverable above and beyond standard compensatory damages in a legal action. Automobile liability insurance policies typically do not cover punitive damages. Therefore, if texting contributes to a crash, the at-fault driver may be exposed to personal liability that jeopardizes the driver’s financial holdings, including his or her home, savings, or other assets.

Unlike some uncontrollable factors which contribute to motor vehicle collisions, such as the sudden appearance of an animal in the road, distracted driving is very much in the control of the driver—the best practice is simply to defer cell phone use to a time when not operating a motor vehicle.

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