Understanding the Legal and Safety Risks of Texting While Driving

“Keep your eyes on the road,” is something every parent tells their teenager when teaching them how to drive. But paying attention to the road has become increasingly difficult in recent years with the advent of smartphone technology that makes it easy for people to text or chat with their friends while driving. “Distracted driving” is now considered a public safety problem on par with drunk driving.

More Than 3,000 Distracted Driving Deaths Every Year

The dangers of distracted driving are quite real. According to a recent New York Times article, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that 272 teenagers were killed throughout the country in 2015 in “distraction-affected” car accidents. Overall, 3,263 out of 3,477 crash-related deaths in 2015–94%–involved distracted driving.

Despite the risks, the NHTSA said approximately 71% of teenagers admit “they have sent a text while driving.” On average, the act of texting takes your eyes of the road for five seconds, which is all that is necessary to cause a potentially fatal accident.

Distracted driving is not just limited to texting. It can include any type of smartphone or handheld device use, as well as eating or drinking, fixing hair or makeup, adjusting the car’s stereo system, or even talking to other passengers. However, the NHTSA cautions that texting “is by far the most alarming distraction” since it physically takes your eyes off of the road.

Georgia Laws on Distracted Driving

Georgia currently prohibits all drivers from texting while operating a motor vehicle. In addition, all “novice drivers”–i.e., licensed drivers under the age of 18–are banned from any type of cell phone use while driving. This ban extends to using a phone with a “hands free” device. Adult drivers may still use their handheld devices while driving, subject to the texting ban.

Will Phone Manufacturers Be Held Liable?

When distracted driving leads to an accident that injures innocent people, the victims can sue the driver for negligence under Georgia law. But what about the phone manufacturers? Can they be held responsible for designing devices that are unsafe to operate while driving?

In recent months, a number of lawsuits have been filed on this subject, most notably against iPhone manufacturer Apple, Inc. These are basically product liability cases. The core claim is that Apple has the ability to design iPhones that can prevent a user from texting while driving–the company actually holds a patent for such technology–but have made a deliberate decision not to do so. These lawsuits allege this amounts to defective product design.

Whether any of these lawsuit will succeed remains to be seen. Meanwhile, some states are moving towards a total ban on smartphone use while driving. A new California law took effect on January 1 that does just that. California now bans all drivers from even holding a handheld electronic device while driving. If California’s law succeeds in reducing the number of distracted driving accidents it may prompt other states, including Georgia, to consider a similar total ban.

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