A recent New Jersey case involving distracted driving has made national headlines. The case involves a motorcyclist and his passenger who were catastrophically injured when a distracted, text messaging driver struck their bike. The case gained national attention because the injured riders sued the individual who was sending text messages to the driver and knew that the recipient was driving at the time of the conversation.
Not long ago, Superior Court Judge David Rand issued a ruling dismissing the injured riders’ claims against the text message sender. However, counsel for the injured riders has indicated that his clients will appeal the ruling and the legal debate over the text message sender’s civil liability will continue in the New Jersey Courts.
Shortly after Judge Rand’s decision, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno signed the Kulesh, Kubert and Bolis Law into effect, which is named after victims of distracted driving crashes. The new law allows full prosecution of cell phones users who drive recklessly and cause crashes that result in serious harm or death. Penalties for offenses under the law would include prison time and fines of up to $150,000.00. These penalties are similar to those for drunken driving in the State.
While at first blush these penalties may seem severe, research supports equalizing penalties for distracted driving due to cell phones and drunken driving because both activities similarly impair drivers. A 2006 study published by psychologists from the University of Utah revealed that people who drive while using cell phones are as impaired as an intoxicated driver operating a vehicle at the legal blood-alcohol limit of .08%.
Research has further revealed that teenagers and young adults are disproportionately affected by the distracted driving epidemic. The NHTSA reports that 11% of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted. In another study done by the Pew Research Center, a whopping 40% of American teenagers said that they have been in a vehicle where the driver has used a cell phone in an unsafe manner.
If the statistics, the tragic stories of the families who have lost loved ones in distracted driving crashes, and the increased distracted driving penalties are not enough to end this dangerous behavior, which is particularly prevalent in teens and young adults, what else can be done?