Reading This Column While Driving is Dangerous

Posted: Dec 18, 2009 3:37 PM
Reading This Column While Driving is Dangerous

We all know it’s dangerous to be driving a car while talking on a handheld cell phone or texting someone, right? It’s the driver’s fault for driving distracted and causing a collision. Bizarrely enough, certain trial lawyers might disagree with you. The finger is now being pointed not at the negligent driver, but at his cell phone carrier and manufacturer. Wireless companies appear to be the new tort target for not telling people what we all already know: driving while distracted is unsafe.

The New York Times recently reported on the tragic death of a woman in Oklahoma City due to a car collision with a distracted driver who ran a red light at 45 miles-per-hour. The distracted driver was talking on his cell phone when his truck slammed into the victim’s SUV in the middle of an intersection. With the endorsement of a forgiving victim’s daughter, a judge sentenced the guilt-ridden driver to probation.

But just this fall, the same victim’s daughter filed a civil lawsuit against the distracted driver’s cell phone manufacturer and wireless carrier. So the novel legal theory goes: the wireless companies have a special duty to adequately warn people that driving while talking or texting with a handheld cell phone is unsafe. In this case, lawyers are apparently claiming it wasn’t enough that warnings were printed in the cell phone’s user manual. (The distracted driver admits to never having read it.)

Prosecution under criminal negligence or distracted driving laws of drivers who cause collisions by talking on their handheld cell phones is essential. In addition to enforcing the public law, private law claims against such distracted drivers for injuries sustained makes good sense. But should judges now impose special new duties on wireless companies to warn individuals not to drive irresponsibly?

It goes without saying that only drivers themselves can control their conduct behind the wheel. Neither the presence of trial lawyers or deep-pocketed defendants should make us forget that obvious fact. Not to mention the fact that if such far-fetched legal claims are accepted by judges, wireless companies faced with paying significant damage claims will likely spread that cost to all of its other customers in the form of higher prices.

Fortunately, there currently exist no legal precedents for special wireless company warning duty claims in distracted driver cases. To the contrary, a few years ago an Indiana state court dismissed a similar kind of lawsuit filed against a wireless company by a driver involved in a collision with a cell phone-using driver. The Indiana Court of Appeals had the good sense to recognize that “[a] cellular phone does not cause a driver to wreck a car. Rather, it is the driver’s inattention while using the phone that may cause an accident.” Pointing out that there are also drivers who eat, apply make up, or look at maps while driving, the Indiana Court saw the absurdity of imposing special duties on restaurants, cosmetic manufacturers or mapmakers to prevent car accidents. One might as well require car manufacturers to stop selling cars altogether lest they be misused and cause a collision, the Indiana Court reasoned.

Everyday folks understand that driving while texting or talking on a handheld cell phone is irresponsible behavior by a driver, as is engaging in any number of distracting behaviors. We should keep the focus on those individuals in the best position to prevent negligent driving—drivers themselves. Certainly, the wireless industry has a corporate citizen role to play raising public consciousness, but singling out one cause of driver distraction among many and shifting the personal and financial blame away from drivers who are fault is hardly justified.