Distracted driving is driving while performing any activity that distracts a driver's attention from safely operating a vehicle. It includes any behavior that shifts concentration away from safe driving.
Many activities fall under the label "distracted driving." The main types of distraction are obvious, like using your cellphone to text or check your social media. However, several other practices can be included under "distracted driving." Some of these include:
- Adjusting seat belts or rear-view mirrors
- Reaching for items in your vehicle
- Using a navigation system
Many laws focus on electronic distractions, such as driving while texting or using a cellphone. However, non-gadget forms of distracted driving still occur, such as driving while shaving, applying makeup, or tending to a pet.
Distracted drivers can cause motor vehicle crashes, injuries, and fatalities. They can also face citations for traffic violations. Evidence of distractions can be used to prove negligence or recklessness in an auto accident injury lawsuit.
Laws on General Distracted Driving
Distracted driving is an umbrella term covering many behaviors, with every state enacting laws against it. States use various approaches to defining distracted driving, from general to very specific bans on distractions.
Some states define distracted driving through general distracted driving laws. These laws do not specify which exact activities are forbidden. Instead, they set general parameters.
General distracted driving statutes typically define distracted driving as doing something while operating a motor vehicle that:
- Is not necessary to operate the vehicle
- Impairs (or would reasonably be expected to impair) the driver's ability to drive safely
Bans on Specific Distractions
Some states forbid specific activities while driving. While most states address wireless devices in their laws, some states have also banned certain non-tech distractions. Some of these prohibited activities include:
- Personal grooming
- Reading or writing
- Interacting with pets or driving with animals not restrained by a carrier, harness, or crate
- Other common in-vehicle distractions
Cellphones and Driving
Many states have laws explicitly forbidding speaking on a phone without using a hands-free device while driving. Many prohibit all cellphone use (even with a hands-free device) by certain classes of drivers. Often, this means novice drivers (typically under 18 years old) and school bus drivers.
Most states that ban hand-held cellphone use include exceptions for emergency calls.
Even in states without a specific ban on driving while using a cellphone, doing so without a hands-free device may violate general distracted driving laws.
Driving While Texting
Texting while driving can be just as dangerous as driving under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Because of this, many states have enacted laws that expressly ban driving while texting. These laws often bar the use of electronic messaging devices, most often cellphones. Older technology used to send and receive text messages (such as PDAs and pagers) can also be banned.
These device-oriented laws typically forbid driving while texting and other wireless usage. That means no emailing, web browsing, checking social media, or using smartphone apps.
For details on your state's laws, see the Governors Highway Safety Association's list of state laws on distracted driving.
Getting Pulled Over for Distracted Driving
Most states allow law enforcement to issue a traffic citation for distracted driving, even if they observe no other violation. These are called primary enforcement laws.
A limited number of states have opted for secondary enforcement laws. This means officers may only cite you for distracted driving if they pull you over for a separate violation.
Some cellphone or texting bans target specific motorists, such as teen drivers. The charges under these statutes are usually primary enforcement offenses.
Evidence of Negligence or Recklessness
Beyond traffic tickets, distracted driving poses far more serious dangers like traffic crashes and injuries. These crashes and injuries can lead to lawsuits. If distracted driving was a factor, it's far more likely a driver will be held liable for damages.
For example, if you are involved in an accident while or shortly after dialing a cellphone call, evidence of that call could be used to prove negligence or recklessness. With negligence deciding many auto injury lawsuits, evidence of distraction can result in significant monetary liabilities. Fatal crashes have even higher liabilities.
Electronic device use or engaging in other distractions can cause legal issues, even if another driver causes an accident. In many states, if a driver on a handheld cellphone is hit by another driver, their cellphone use could constitute contributory or comparative negligence.
Depending on the state, a plaintiff's negligent behavior can reduce the size of compensation. It can also prevent plaintiffs from obtaining any compensation for their injuries. This means a cellphone-using driver might be out of luck with receiving damages for injuries they suffered when someone else hit them.
Cellphone records detail how and when people use their mobile devices. Evidence of phone calls and messages sent or accessed close to the time of an accident can be crucial in auto accident-related lawsuits.
Even if there is no specific law against what the driver was doing, evidence of distracted driving can help prove negligence. For example, if you file a personal injury claim after being hit by another car, you may lose the lawsuit if there is evidence you were texting and driving. This is true even in states that have not banned texting while driving.
Distracted Driving Online Resources
Several authoritative organizations offer distracted driving tips, recent statistics, safety information, and more:
- U Drive. U Text. U Pay.: Testimonials, statistics, and traffic safety facts from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)
- Are You Driving Intexticated?: Tips, videos, statistics, and info specific to teen driving and graduated driver licensing (from the AAA Foundation)
- Distracted Driving: Facts sheets, statistics, and more from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
- Distracted Driving Awareness Month: Advocacy and awareness education championed every April by the National Safety Council (NSC)
Affected by Distracted Driving? Get Legal Help
Distracted driving can take many forms, from tending to a pet while driving to sending a quick text message. If you have been cited for this, you can talk to an experienced traffic ticket lawyer. An attorney familiar with the distracted driving laws in your state can review your ticket to ensure the law was applied correctly.
If you have been injured as a result of driver distraction, it is a good idea to consult with a personal injury lawyer. An experienced attorney can review the evidence of driver recklessness in an accident and help you pursue compensation for damages.