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A distracted driver is a dangerous driver. Distracted driving is a leading cause of death and personal injury accidents in the U.S. In 2016 alone, distracted driving was responsible for 3,477 deaths and an estimated additional 391,000 car accident injuries, according to a report from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
The NHTSA defines distracted driving as “any activity…that takes your attention away from the task of safe driving.” There are three primary categories of distracted driving:
- Cognitive: Any distraction that causes the mind to wander away from the task of driving.
- Visual: Any distraction that causes the driver to remove their eyes from the road.
- Manual: Any distraction that causes the driver to remove their hands from the steering wheel.
The most common forms of distracted driving are talking or texting on the phone, eating and drinking, talking to other passengers in your vehicle, and adjusting your stereo, entertainment or navigation system. Many of these distractions fall into two of these categories and some, like texting, fall into all three.
Distracted driving is a serious offense. If you’re found responsible for a distracted driving-related crash, the physical, emotional, legal, and financial consequences could be severe.
Although there is, at present, no national law that prohibits the use of cell phones while driving, most states enforce some sort of ban, be it a ban on texting, a ban on the use of hand-held devices, an age-specific ban on the use of cellular devices in all forms, or some combination of the three.
If you’re found in violation of local anti-distracted driving laws, you will be subject to a penalty. For most states, this means paying a fine. But for some states, such as Alaska and Utah, it includes serving jail time. In a number of states, including New York and Wisconsin, drivers receive demerit points each time they are pulled over for distracted driving. If you accumulate enough points, your license could be suspended or revoked.
The consequences are even more severe if you’re responsible for an accident as a direct result of distracted driving. Most states require police crash report forms to include at least one category for distraction and some include preliminary fault assessment. If you’re involved in a crash with another driver and they witness you engaging in distracting behavior, they can inform the reporting officer, who can use that information to testify against you in court. In certain states, if the officer has probable cause to suspect you were using your cell phone at the time of the crash, they can confiscate your phone and use your phone records as evidence against you.
If your distracted driving leads to the injury of a passenger or another driver, you could serve time behind bars. If it leads to the death of a passenger or another driver, you could be tried for vehicular manslaughter or homicide.
If you’re the kind of person who regularly drives with distractions, you’d better have excellent insurance coverage with a high policy limit because it isn’t a matter of if you’ll be in an accident but when.
Drivers have a “duty of care”—a legal obligation to adhere to a standard of reasonable care while performing any acts that could foreseeably harm others. If you violate this duty of care by driving with distractions, you are committing intentional negligence and can be held liable for damages as a result of that negligence.
Those damages can include:
- Medical bills
- Lost wages
- Pain and suffering
- Automotive property damage
- Personal property damage
- Other out-of-pocket expenses
- Punitive damages
Distracted driving puts your personal assets at risk. Depending on the amount the victim seeks in damages, you might even need to file for bankruptcy, which could affect your lifelong financial abilities. And parents of teenagers, take note: If your child is responsible for a distracted driving-related crash, the victim could go after your assets, even if you weren’t present at the time of the crash.
Even if you manage to avoid getting into an accident, distracted driving can still take a serious financial toll. In addition to paying a substantial fine, every time you receive a ticket for distracted driving, your auto insurance premiums will increase by an average of 16 percent, or about $226, according to a 2018 report from The Zebra. Certain states have higher rate increases for distracted driving violations than the average—for example, the insurance penalty for a distracted driving violation in Vermont is a rate increase of 41 percent, or about $425.
Distracted driving accounts for $129 billion, or 15 percent of all economic loss and societal harm caused by crashes, according to a 2014 study from the NHTSA. Keep in mind that distracted driving is vastly underreported, so the actual economic figure is likely much higher.
Tips for Focusing on the Road
There are some simple measures you can take to break dangerous driving habits and make the road safer for everyone.
- Avoid multitasking. Drivers are not as good at multitasking as they would like to believe. According to research from the National Safety Council (NSC), forcing your brain to switch between two tasks significantly slows reaction time and drivers can remain distracted for up to 27 seconds after experiencing a distraction. Make sure you take care of everything you need before you get behind the wheel to avoid being a negligent driver.
- Keep food out of the car. Although it might be tempting to grab a bite for the road during a long car ride or eat breakfast during the drive to work on days when you are running late, eating in the car makes you less attentive to the road and risks the chance of added distraction if there is a spill.
- Pull over to read directions. If you get lost en route to your destination, rather than take out your phone and pull up directions while driving, pull into a parking lot or other safe area to look at your phone’s GPS system. It’s best to look at directions prior to heading to a new destination but, if you absolutely must use a navigation system while driving, reduce the risk by turning on your GPS before you depart and turn on voice commands to avoid glancing at the screen.
- Put down the cell phone. No text or phone call is worth risking your life or anyone else’s. Practice “out of sight, out of mind” by keeping your phone somewhere you can’t readily access it, such as in a purse on the passenger side floor or in the glove compartment, so that you will be less tempted to reach for it while driving. Also, consider setting your phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode while driving or, better yet, turning it off completely until you reach your destination.
Other Ways to Combat Distracted Driving
As the public becomes more aware of the dangers of distracted driving, legislators are actively working to put an end to it.
Cell phone use (hand-held calling, hands-free calling and texting) while driving is the leading cause of distracted driving-related incidents. An estimated 481,000 drivers use cell phones while driving during daylight hours, according to the NHTSA. The average driver spends 3.5 minutes on the phone for every hour-long trip—and studies show that a 2-second distraction is long enough to increase the likelihood of crashing by 20 times.
In response to this epidemic, many states and U.S. territories have taken legislative action to reduce the number of cell phone-related crashes.
- 16 states, the District of Columbia (D.C.), Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands prohibit all drivers from using hand-held devices while driving.
- 38 states and D.C. ban all cell phone use by novice or teen drivers.
- 21 states and D.C. prohibit any cell phone use for school bus drivers.
- 47 states, D.C., Puerto Rico, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands ban text messaging for all drivers.
In addition to cell phone usage bans, 48 states legally require all police crash report forms to include at least one category for distraction. President Obama signed the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act (also known as FAST Act) into law in 2015. The FAST Act includes incentive grant provisions for states if they pass distracted driving laws.
Legislators aren’t the only ones taking action—the tech industry is also getting involved. Industry leaders, such as AT&T and Apple, have developed anti-distracted driving phone apps that can block calls and text messages, track safe driving, send parent notifications, and provide location sharing. Many of these apps are available for both iOS and Android platforms.
Automotive manufacturers are incorporating cutting-edge, built-in advanced auto safety systems and features, such as forward-collision warning, automatic emergency braking and lane-departure warning, into their vehicles. These features are designed to intervene should you become distracted and lose control of your vehicle. Though it’s important to remember that these systems are imperfect and are not an adequate substitute for an attentive driver.
By making a few simple changes to your driving habits and supporting the efforts of campaigns to prevent distracted driving, you can avoid the negative consequences of distracted driving and help make the road a safer place for everyone.
About the Author
John Sherman, attorney-at-law and founder of Sherman Law, has 25 years of experience representing a broad array of clients throughout Massachusetts and New Hampshire. Sherman’s areas of practice include insurance law, personal injury (defense & plaintiff) and motor vehicle accidents (plaintiff).