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Maureen May
Maureen May
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Distracted Driving: What You Should Know

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Distracted driving can mean many things—fishing for a CD, putting on lipstick, eating a french fry, talking to someone in the back seat, trying to settle a toddler—but nowadays it can also mean talking on a cell phone or texting. The figures are astonishing and growing every year—at any given daylight moment across America, approximately 660,000 drivers are using cell phones or manipulating electronic devices while driving, according to distraction.gov (the US Department of Transportation website). As of December, 2013, in the United States, 153 BILLION text messages were sent EVERY MONTH.

Engaging in visual- manual subtasks – such as reaching for a cell phone, dialing or texting—while driving increased the risk of an accident by four times. As much as five seconds is taken while texting, and driving at 55 mph, that amount of time can take your car a length a football field.  That’s like driving 360 feet blindfolded. And headset cell phone use is not substantially safer than hand-held use.

With teens and twenty-somethings it gets even worse: a quarter of teens respond to a text message once or more every time they drive, and 20 per cent of teen drivers admit that they have extended, mutli- message text conversations. As much as 10 per cent of drivers under 20 who were involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the accident. Fatal crashes per mile driven, for 16-19 year-olds are nearly three times the rate for drivers ages 20 and over—and nearly twice as high for 16-17 year-olds as for 18-19 year-olds.

An interview and survey of over 400 teen drivers from 31 states revealed that more than one-half of those teen drivers talk on a cell phone to their parents while driving, because teens reported that their parents expect to be able to reach them.  And more than half of teens admit they will occasionally text and drive—70 per cent are likely to do so at a red light; 60 per cent said that they have texted while driving alone compared to almost 40 per cent with a friend, according to enddd.org, a distraction driving website.

Many experts believe that these numbers and statistics actually under- represent the number of crashes that involve distracted driving because these numbers are relying on police reports and self- reporting of drivers. Regardless, these numbers indicate that distracted driving is a dangerous problem that is likely to increase as the use of in-vehicle technology and personal electronic devices while driving also increases.

The message is clear: keep the cell phones off while driving. Obviously, keeping your cell phones in your pocket or purse would be the safest thing to do. And watching for distracted drivers around you would be wise, if not imperative.

But short of that, what can you do? If you have a teen driver in your immediate family, educate that driver of the risks of distracted driving, especially the use of cell phones and texting. You can also lobby your state legislatures to pass laws—if your state does not have one involving cell phone use—and lobby also to enforce these laws.

For example, New Jersey recently enacted a law to provide for criminal penalties for those drivers who are distracted by the use of a cell phone while driving and as a result cause injury to others. The new law explicitly permits a jury to infer that a driver who was using a hand-held cell phone and caused injury in an accident may be guilty of assault by auto, a fourth- degree crime if someone was injured seriously – thus exposing the driver to a potential sentence in state prison.

Suppose the injured party wants to hold liable the driver responding to a text and also the person who sent the driver that text, even if that person was not in the car with the driver and sent that text remotely? In a New Jersey case, Kubert v. Best (and Colonna), 432 N.J. Super. 495, 75 A.3d 1214 (2013), the court affirmed summary judgment at trial granted to that other person sending the text, but stopped short of granting an escape from liability totally. “We conclude that a person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving.” But no case so far found in our research has reached that level and affirmed a judgment for the injured party against a remote person who sent a text to the driver. However, our impression is that this is only a matter of time.

Distracted driving is fast becoming an epidemic. Vigilance while driving and leaving cell phones off while behind the wheel, are just two things that every driver should do. Educate your teen drivers. And always be watchful.