By Attorney David Burns
Mobile phones are wonderful tools that allow users to stay in touch with family and friends and can be used to summon help in an emergency. The proliferation of mobile phones is a testament to the mobile phone’s utility in our modern society. However, the increasing use of mobile phones and other mobile devices while driving has created a very serious danger on our highways. Any form of distracted driving can create a dangerous situation, but texting is one of the most dangerous.
Florida has gotten some well-deserved negative attention as one of only six states that has yet to ban texting while driving. Ignoring the hazards of this toxic combination is dangerous and the Florida Legislature is clearly remiss for failing to act. However, the greater problem is that texting drivers who cause injury or death to other innocent motorists are not being held fully accountable for their dangerous conduct. Florida Courts currently allow awards of punitive damage in civil lawsuits against drivers who are intoxicated at the time of a crash. Studies have shown that texting while driving creates an increased risk of dangerous collisions equivalent to that of driving while intoxicated. It is time for the Florida Courts to allow the award of punitive damages against drivers who are texting at the time of a crash. Such action by the Courts would send a very clear message that texting while driving will not be tolerated in Florida.
In 2010, statistics show that 3,092 people were killed in crashes involving distracted driving. It is estimated that in that same year an additional 416,000 people were injured in motor vehicle crashes involving distracted driving. The age group having the largest proportion of drivers involved in distracted driving were drivers under the age of 20. Approximately 40% of all American teens say that they have been in a car when the driver used a mobile phone in a way that put the occupants in danger.
According to a study by Monash University, drivers who use hand-held devices are four times more likely to get into crashes involving injury than drivers who are not using such a device. Text messaging creates a crash risk 23 times worse than driving while not distracted, according to a study of commercial vehicle operators sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation. According to the same study, sending or receiving a text takes the driver’s eyes away from the road for an average of 4.6 seconds. This is the equivalent of driving blindfolded for the entire length of a football field (when driving at a speed of 55 miles per hour).
Interestingly, studies have also found that the use of a hands-free device is not significantly safer than using a hand-held device. It is the use of the brain to engage in the distracting activity (thus taking the driver’s attention away from the roadway) which creates the danger. According to a study by Carnegie Mellon, driving while using a cell phone reduces the amount of brain activity associated with driving by 37%. All forms of distracted driving are dangerous, but sending and receiving text messages while driving is at the top of the list.
A number of states have now enacted laws prohibiting texting while driving. Unfortunately, Florida is not among those states. Legislation that would have outlawed texting while driving has been introduced in prior sessions of the Florida Legislature, but the Legislature failed to pass the ban on texting while driving. Legislation is needed in Florida to make it illegal to send or receive text messages while driving as well as carrying on phone conversations while driving. Texting and talking while driving create a very real risk of serious injury or death not only to those engaged in the activity, but to innocent motorists in the zone of danger.
But, even in the forty-four states that have the ban, drivers rarely get ticketed for texting or talking while driving. Police officers say most of the laws are too difficult to enforce. And the penalties are not very severe. Existing penalties certainly are not tough enough to discourage this dangerous behavior and protect the lives of drivers, passengers, and pedestrians.
If Florida Legislators ever take action on this increasingly critical issue, they need to go beyond a flat-out ban and increase the permissible amount of punitive damages — the kind of damages intended to penalize the responsible party and deter negligent behavior. Then they need to send a message to drivers that if you text and drive, and cause an accident, you are going to pay.
A punitive civil judgment against an irresponsible driver can send the type of message that a small ticket cannot. That is the type of action that may finally get people to understand that this kind of reckless behavior has a steep price — in lives and in dollars. Until then, drivers needs to be smarter than Legislators and just put down their phones when they are in front of the wheel.
David Burns is a Board Certified Civil Trial Lawyer with the firm of Burns & Giddings, P.A. in Tallahassee, Florida.