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Distracted Driving, Mayhem, and Self-Inflicted Liability

Eating. Fixing our hair. Taming the kids in the back seat. Conference calls. Texting your boss to answer a question. People’s vehicles have long been extensions of their dining rooms, offices, and bathrooms.

Technology increases our ability to stay on the go more than ever because we are better able to do more at once. But our driving is suffering. GPS devices, TV screens and cell phones are some of the chief offenders. “At any given daylight moment across America,” about 660,000 people are fiddling with their phones or other electronic devices, federal highway safety officials say. And, national safety campaigns aren’t helping.

Wireless companies warn that texting is uniquely dangerous. It involves much of the brain – our manual, cognitive and visual skills. Put more simply, we do not think about driving, steering and watching the road for cars and pedestrians or much of anything as well as we could. At the very least, texting drivers slow traffic because they stay stopped, heads down and texting, rudely unaware the light has changed. Worse, they can kill.

In May 2015, a tractor-trailer driver who caused a crash that killed five nursing students later admitted to texting just before the wreck. Studies show it takes a driver 27 seconds to fully refocus on the road after sending a text, ending a call or otherwise shutting down electronics.

Distracted drivers were responsible for 3,179 vehicle fatalities and 431,000 injuries in 2014, according to a report from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Cellphone technology was named as a factor in 445 traffic deaths in 2013, a NHSTA-sponsored website reported.

Our intentional multitasking is misguided, according to MIT Professor Earl Miller, a neuroscientist. People think they can do it and they are wrong, he says. People are shifting attention from one thing to another rapidly, not covering two things simultaneously, he said in a National Public Radio interview.

An industry study says we cannot help ourselves with wireless devices while driving. AT&T commissioned a study that showed 98 percent of people text though they know it’s dangerous. A University of Connecticut School of Medicine researcher, Dr. David Greenfield, authored the study. He says in an AT&T consumer blog that people rationalize the behavior, which is a “classic sign of addiction.”

Six percent of respondents admitted they are addicted.  But twice that many showed through their actions they are addicted, he writes. The user gets a neurochemical high when the phone rings or vibrates unexpectedly. Then follows an excitement about what is on the other end of the line.

Chemistry aside, consider the law. Say an otherwise totally innocent driver heads toward a green light at an intersection. Then, a very drunk driver turns left on the red arrow in front of the driver with the green light. If the one with the green light is texting, emailing, gaming or using data (example: reading a map on a smart phone), the injured party might be considered as contributing to the wreck because they weren’t paying close enough attention. The drunk driver’s insurance company might balk at paying full medical expenses and any other compensation even though their client was intoxicated.

There appears to be no “out” with hands-free phone use.  Earpieces and speaker phones do not reduce distraction. NHTSA research in 2002 showed similar “degradation” of driving ability. In other words, there is no meaningful difference between hands-free phone use and holding the phone, the report said.

Common sense says to pull off of the road to dial, talk, text, read, or dine. Doing all that while driving might seem efficient in a time crunch. But the aftermath of a wreck can be endless. For tips to avoid distracted driving, see the The AAA Exchange.

Harris Lowry Manton lawyers have decades of experience handling personal injury matters. For a consultation please call us toll-free at 404-961-7650 or fill out our online contact form.

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