Distracted Driving: The Number One Cause of Serious Accidents
by Attorney Ronald M Papell
While accidents can result from any number of behaviors while driving, the greatest cause of injuries and death is unquestionably the use of electronic devices while driving. Significantly, the users of cellular phones in vehicles tend to be younger inexperienced drivers who, addicted to texting, are taking their eyes from the roads and highways and endangering themselves and others. When traveling at freeway speeds the potential for disaster is obvious.
Studies have shown that the average time a driver takes their eyes off the road to send a text is five seconds. When traveling at freeway speed that’s enough time to travel the length of a football field! Imagine driving on a freeway next to a driver who is not looking ahead for a distance of 300 feet or more! With traffic conditions changing constantly, one can envision the catastrophic consequences of a driver going 55 miles per hour into the rear of a line of traffic ahead that has had to suddenly stop for any number of reasons. These chain rear end collisions can cause severe injuries to the occupants of vehicles that are being struck at high speed from behind and the pushed into the stopped vehicles ahead. These multiple impact collisions often cause neck, back and head injuries with the potential of spinal cord and brain injuries increasing proportionally with the speed and force of the impact.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has determined that 11% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were reported as distracted at the time of the crash. Not surprisingly, almost half of drivers with cell phones under the age of 35 send or read text messages while driving and 60% of all drivers in all age groups use cell phones while driving. As driving safely requires ones full attention at all times to the roadway and the conduct of other drivers it is not difficult to imagine the likelihood of a serious accident when half the drivers on the road might be using a cell phone at any given moment. Now imagine if 2 or more drivers in proximity of each other are using cell phones at the same time! The prospect is both frightening and alarming.
The consequences of distracted driving are tragic and sobering. In 2011 statistics have shown that 3,331 people were killed in crashes involving a distracted driver. An additional 387,000 people were injured in motor vehicle accidents involving distracted drivers. These numbers are unquestionably low as authorities have little or no ability to assign distracted driving as a cause when the drivers involved invariably deny using a cell phone when questioned after an accident. Not surprisingly, in 40 years of representing victims of accidents, the author has had fewer than 10 people acknowledge that they were distracted in any manner and fewer than 5 admitted to using a cellular phone at the time of the accident. It should be noted that these drivers were giving testimony under penalty of perjury and still denied use of electronic devices even though they could not explain how they came to crash into another vehicle at high speed or make a turning movement without seeing other vehicles ahead of them.
The foregoing discussion makes it clear that driving of automobiles is increasingly dangerous in the electronic age. The danger is greatly increased for riders of motorcycles or bicycles as these vehicles are difficult to see under the best of circumstances. The most common accidents involving motorcycles occur when drivers of cars and trucks execute left turns in front of oncoming motorcycles at intersections. While left turning vehicles cause numerous accidents and injure countless occupants of vehicles traveling in the opposite direction the consequences to motorcyclists is especially serious. With little protection provided by a motorcycle, the riders are frequently thrown through the air landing some distance away on the roadway. While helmets and leather jackets provide some protection they do not prevent spinal cord injuries or broken bones. When the left turning vehicle collides with the motorcycle as it passes by, crushing left leg and foot injuries frequently occur. Many of these injuries result in lifetime pain and severe limitations to the rider victims. The dangers of distracted driving cannot be overstated.
While it may seem obvious, the fact is that driving while distracted makes it three (3) times more likely that you will be involved in a crash. It should be noted that distractions can take several forms including taking your eyes off the road, taking your hands off the wheel and taking your mind off your driving. The latter distraction, known as cognitive distraction, can result from talking on a cell phone, even when you do so hands free. Further studies demonstrate that drivers do not react as quickly nor do they make the best decisions when talking on a cellular phone. As well, taking your eyes off the road to access your in-vehicle navigation system can also contribute to inattention and result in tragic consequences.
While the risk of injuring yourself, your passengers or others should deter drivers from using cell phones the statistics indicate that even the likelihood of serious injuries has not deterred drivers from driving while distracted. In fact, although most states, including California, have made driving while using electronic devices illegal, even the prospect of criminal charges being filed has not prevented distracted driving. A brief discussion of the financial consequences of distracted driving is appropriate.
A driver causing an accident is subject to civil liability, the awarding of monetary damages, for all of the harm caused to others including the inflicting of injuries and the consequential damages of medical costs, loss of earnings and related losses. While your insurance will normally pay such damages, should you have adequate coverage, not all damages are covered by your insurance policy. Another class of damages known as “punitive” or “exemplary” damages can be levied against those who are found to engage in willful misconduct or behavior carried out with a reckless disregard for the rights and safety of others.
Historically, those who drove while intoxicated could be found to be acting in reckless disregard for the safety of others. If proven at trial, a jury could consider whether the responsible party knew or should have known they were intoxicated when they got behind the wheel of a vehicle. If established that the driver knew they had too much to drink and got in their car and drove anyway, causing an accident and injuries, a jury could punish the driver by awarding “punitive” damages against him/her. Such damages, not surprisingly, cannot be covered by insurance as the law and public policy prevents the purchase of insurance to pay punitive damages. If insurance were able to indemnify a party guilty of intentional or reckless conduct, an individual intent on harming another could simply buy a large insurance policy and commit an act inflicting injury upon another and be indemnified by his insurance company. Obviously, such antisocial behavior is neither tolerated nor permitted under the laws of this State. While driving under the influence was the primary basis for awarding punitive or exemplary damages against one causing injuries to others, another class of conduct can be alleged to be intentional or in reckless disregard of the rights and safety of others. Distracted driving!
It is becoming increasingly common for attorneys to file lawsuits against drivers, and in the proper case against their employers, when distracted driving results in serious injuries or death. Increasingly, judges are allowing cases to go to trial with the issue of punitive damages being considered by the jury where the evidence has demonstrated that the driver was driving while distracted and especially where records or other evidence support the conclusion that the driver was using a cellular phone or other electronic device. Where evidence exists that the employer of the driver knew, or should have known, of the use of electronic devices by their employee, a jury could potentially award substantial punitive damages against a business entity. Where the employer is a large corporation, such damages can run into the millions of dollars. While the awarding of damages, however large, may be of some comfort to the victim, it will not return him or her to their pre-accident condition. Hopefully, such an award will serve to punish the individuals and companies involved and serve as a deterrent to future reckless and dangerous conduct by those who would use electronic devices while driving endangering themselves and others and potentially ruining innocent lives and families.
As with all cases where significant injuries occur, it is imperative that victims contact an attorney as soon after an accident as possible. While attorneys handling such cases typically charge a “contingent fee” that is not paid by the client but rather is a percentage of any recovery obtained, the advice a competent attorney can provide can go a long way to protecting the rights of the injured. Most importantly, attorneys can hire experts to investigate the scene of the accident or take other action to preserve valuable evidence to be used in the prosecution of the civil case that will be filed, if necessary, to obtain the full measure of damages to which the victim is entitled. While it may cost you nothing to speak to an attorney and seek advice, it can cost you a great deal should you fail to seek such advice and lose any rights you may have had to secure financial compensation for your losses. As the saying goes, it is always better to be safe than sorry and the best proven course to take after an accident is to speak with an experienced attorney with the knowledge and ability to protect your rights.