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Cell Phones and Car Accidents

During the last two decades, cell phones have become ubiquitous.  Unfortunately, the use of cell phones while driving has become equally ubiquitous. According to the National Safety Council, the proliferation of cell phone use has been dramatic—over 270 million people in the United States today have cell phone subscriptions. While cell phones provide several benefits, such as internet access and a more efficient means of communicating, a large number of studies have emerged that point to a negative impact on traffic safety that was caused by the use of these electronic devices.

Cell phones are responsible for dozens of lost lives in automobile accidents across the United States and, unfortunately, will likely continue to be a common culprit given its growing use and access to drivers. The slightest distraction, at the wrong time, can result in severe consequences.  Because of the obvious and inherent dangers associated with operating and automobile, e.g., an unexpected event can occur at any time.

It has been reported that a large number of drivers are not aware of the results of numerous surveys that show there are no significant difference between a phone that the driver holds in his or her hand (“hand-held”), and one that can be used without hands (“hands-free”). While hands-free devices are advertised as risk-free, National Safety Council summarized more than 30 studies that compared the safety of hand-held to hands-free cell phone use. The study concluded that hands-free use conferred no safety benefit over hand-held devices. Even though many people claim that they can multitask, doing two cognitive functions at the same time is proven to be demanding since performance can suffer by switching attention back and forth from driving to using the phone.

According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Transportation, over five thousand (5,000) fatal car accidents involved driver distraction, which made up 16% of the overall fatalities during that same year. The same report showed over two million injuries resulting from automobile accidents, and 22% involved distracted drivers. Additionally, research has shown that drivers who talk on their phone while driving are four times (4x) more likely to crash than someone with a 0.08 blood alcohol content. Similarly, studies from the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration have revealed that if you are driving at 55 mph and take your eyes off the road for 5 seconds to write a text message, you have traveled the length of a football field (end zones included) without looking at the road.

In response to the increasing number of vehicle accidents arising from cell phone use, statutes were introduced in many state legislations to prohibit or restrict the use of hand-held cell phones. North Carolina law, although nuanced, prohibits texting and driving for all drivers, but has no restriction for adults when it comes to talking on a hand-held or hands-free phone. Minors, however, are only permitted to use their cell phones in an emergency situation while driving, or when they are communicating with a parent or guardian. Penalties imposed demonstrate the growing recognition of the danger distracted drivers pose to the public. In North Carolina, the penalty for violating a texting and driving statute is $100, however, this penalty is not allocated to the driver’s demerit points on their driving record. In addition, minors who are in violation of this statute are fined with $25 with no demerit points assessed. School bus drivers are treated differently; they are not permitted to operate a school bus on a public street or highway while using a mobile telephone or any additional technology associated with a mobile telephone while the school bus is in motion, unless there is an emergency situation.

People who use their phones on a daily basis while driving are less likely to have their full attention on the road which makes it difficult to respond to unpredictable events and traffic signals.

If you sustained bodily injury or property damage arising from a motor vehicle accident in which the driver was distracted from using a cell phone, you may be able to bring a cause of action for negligence. Distracted driving may also create a big headache for employers because an injured party could potentially bring a claim against the distracted driver’s employer. If the at-fault driver was on their cell phone during a work related call when the wreck occurred, the defendant’s employer can be brought in as an additional defendant (along with their insurance).   Under these circumstances, an employer may be held vicariously liable if the driver was using the phone within the scope of employment.

In an attempt to enforce the ban on texting and driving, law enforcement often looks for a variety of different driving behaviors:

  • Illegal turns or turning abruptly
  • Striking or almost striking an object or vehicle
  • Failure to maintain lane control
  • Failure to signal
  • Nighttime glow of the device
  • Inconsistent speeds
  • Slow response to traffic signals

 Absent direct evidence, cell phones can also be used as an evidence against the distracted driver. Law enforcement will take steps to lawfully seize the cell phone, or similar device, by a warrant, subpoena, or other court order. Once seized, the cell phone’s record and data will reveal a timestamp of electronic communication such as social media posts, text messages, and incoming/outgoing calls. Any effort to tamper or destroy evidence could be admissible evidence at trial, and will in most, if not all instances, be recovered by experts. If, in the more extreme, the automobile accident results in a casualty, there may be efforts to obtain expert testimony from mobile device forensic examiners and cell phone company records representative. Ultimately, cell phone records will operate as a key piece of evidence in a personal injury litigation.

People using their cell phones while driving present an increasing, and often deadly, threat to other drivers and the public at large. Even if you think you are “just checking your phone” and not actually texting, the consequences are identical. As soon as you lift your eyes off the road, you are a distracted driver. Advice: switch off before you drive off. Many people will be surprised to read that using your cell phone while driving does not result in punitive damages.  The courts have held that cell phone use does not equate to gross negligence. 

If you or a loved one has been injured in a car accident please contact us at (704) 714-1450. You will speak directly with one of our personal injury attorneys.  We will immediately review your case and discuss the potential to pursue personal injury claim.  There is no fee for an initial consultation. 

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