On September 12, 2008, 25 people lost their lives and another 135 were injured when a packed Metrolink commuter train collided with a Union Pacific freight train in Chatsworth, California. Federal investigators believe that the crash was likely the fault of the train engineer, Robert Martin Sanchez, who also died in the accident. Phone records revealed that Sanchez was sending and receiving text messages in the moments leading up to the crash, causing him to ignore several warning lights and run through a red light before hitting the freighter at a combined speed of 80 miles per hour.
The Chatsworth accident quickly became a national symbol of just how devastating and catastrophic driver distraction can be. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 80 percent of all motor vehicle accidents and 65 percent of near crashes are caused by driver distraction. The US Department of Transportation estimates that 6000 people were killed and 500,000 more were injured in 2008 in accidents attributed to distracted drivers.
Effectiveness of Cell Phone, Texting Bans Debatable
The current state response to the problem of driver distraction has been to pass laws banning texting and the use of hand-held cell phones while driving. In California, the ban on using hand-held devices went into effect in July of 2008 (Vehicle Code §23123) while the ban on texting went into effect in January of 2009 (Vehicle Code §23123.5).
These bans, however, present special enforcement issues and may not be as effective at curbing the bad behavior as lawmakers would like. For example, a study released in January 2010 by the Highway Loss Data Institute found that cell phone bans do not correlate to lower accident rates for drivers. The study looked at the crash statistics in four states, including California, after their hands-free cell phone laws went into effect and found that the rate of motor vehicle accidents did not decrease in response to the laws.
In California, the State Highway Patrol has encountered problems with enforcing the texting ban. In the year since the texting ban went into effect, the Highway Patrol has only issued approximately 1,400 citations for violating the statute. In comparison, the Highway Patrol has issued more than 163,000 tickets to drivers caught using hand-held cell phones since that ban went into effect in mid-2008. The low number of texting citations is not because drivers have stopped texting, but because it is so difficult for police officers to catch someone in the act.
Other Reasons Drivers Should Avoid Distractions
So if the law does not convince drivers to stop using cell phones and texting while driving, then what will?
Regardless of a law or regulation prohibiting a distracting activity, there are two important reasons why motorists should avoid distractions while driving:
- Drivers do not want to be responsible for causing an accident that seriously injuries or kills someone
- A jury may find a driver who was texting or talking on a cell phone at the time another driver hit him or her partially at fault for the accident, reducing the driver’s potential recovery at trial
California is a pure comparative negligence state. This means that a jury will consider the relative fault of both drivers in causing an accident and proportion any damage award according to each driver’s percentage of fault. For example, if the jury finds that the plaintiff was 30 percent at fault for the accident, then any compensation the plaintiff receives from the defendant will be reduced by 30 percent. As a result, it is in the defendant’s best interests to argue that the plaintiff was responsible for at least a portion of the accident in order to reduce the defendant’s monetary liability.
Driver distraction is one of the reasons a jury may find a plaintiff partially at fault for causing an accident. If the plaintiff was talking on a cell phone or sending a text message at the time of the accident, the defendant may be able to successfully argue this activity contributed in some way to the accident. Thus, it is in every drivers’ best interests not to participate in an activity that a) may harm someone else or b) handicap their ability to receive compensation for any injuries they sustain in a motor vehicle accident.
Despite the fact that California law prohibits drivers from talking on hand-held cell phones and texting while driving, many drivers continue to engage in both of these dangerous activities. Drivers, however, should be aware of their potential legal liability for doing so, even if they are not entirely to blame for causing an accident.