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Spike in Roadway Fatalities Sparks Call for Tougher Distracted Driving Laws

By: Allan M. Siegel

With April being National Distracted Driving Awareness Month, it is important to look at the significant strides we have made in addressing driver distraction. Today, many states throughout the country have passed distracted driving laws that ban or limit text messaging and the use of cell phones behind the wheel. Although there are laws in place, new statistics show that they may fall short in protecting the public against the substantial risks posed by distracted drivers.

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According to estimates from the National Safety Council, the number of deaths on U.S. roads rose sharply in 2016:

  • 40,200 fatalities in 2016 alone nationwide, the deadliest year since 2007
  • A 6% increase in deaths in 2016 from the previous year
  • A 14% increase in 2016 since 2014 – the largest two year increase since 1964
  • A 7% increase in injuries serious enough to require medical attention (4.6 million total)

The statistics make it clear that our public roadways are filled with potential hazards, but according to the National Safety Council, the dramatic escalation in deaths and injuries is being driven by distracted driving, something that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has referred to as a nationwide epidemic. The new data has prompted the National Safety Council to call for a number of life-saving measures, including tougher laws prohibiting text messaging and any form of cell phone use.

Currently, states have the ability to regulate cell phone use by drivers, and while many states have passed laws doing just that, not all of these laws are created equal, nor do they fully address all safety concerns posed by phones. For example, some states only prohibit novice drivers or bus drivers from texting or using cell phones or ban handheld cell phone use only and permit motorists to use phones with a hands-free device. This can be a shortcoming in fighting distracted driving, as hands-free does not mean risk-free.

The National Safety Council is also recommending that states upgrade distracted driving bans to primary laws, which will allow for better enforcement. As many states impose texting or cell phone bans as secondary laws, law enforcement officers cannot cite a driver for a distracted driving offense unless the driver has also committed another traffic violation.

Here are the current distracted driving laws in the District of Columbia:

  • Texting ban – All drivers are prohibited from text messaging while driving. As a primary law, police can issue a ticket for this reason alone.
  • Cell phone use – Novice drivers, or those who hold a learner’s permit, and bus drivers are prohibited from using a cell phone in any capacity by a primary law.
  • Hand held ban – All drivers are prohibited from handheld cell phone use when driving to make or receive phone calls. The handheld ban is also a primary law and it can result in a $100 fine for a first offense.

The District of Columbia has some of the toughest distracting driving laws in the nation, but in order to stem the rising tide of roadway deaths, advocates argue that all forms of cell phone use need to be prohibited. This includes cell phone use with hands-free devices. Just because these devices may be touted as hands-free does not mean they are free from distractions. A driver using Bluetooth or other hands-free devices is still diverting their cognitive attention away from the road and the primary task of driving. They may also search for or dial numbers manually before placing a call, or become distracted in setting up or adjusting a hands-free device while their vehicle is in motion.

Tougher laws can certainly help with enforcement and making a dent in the rising numbers of preventable car accidents, injuries, and deaths, but the largest battle may come in changing the way our society has become increasingly attached to our phones. Educating the public, raising awareness about distracted driving, and encouraging motorists that “it can wait,” will be just as important as new legislation.

Even with laws in place and more work to be done, victims who are harmed by distracted drivers still have the legal right to hold them accountable for negligence and liable for the damages they suffered. At Chaikin, Sherman, Cammarata & Siegel, P.C., our legal team has handled many distracted driving cases and is available to review your potential case, discuss your rights, and explain how we can help.

For a free consultation with a Washington, DC car accident lawyer, contact us today.