In a recent issue of U.S. 1, my colleague, Tyler Tomlinson, Esquire, wrote about the dangers of text messaging while driving. Mr. Tomlinson’s article discussed a nationally publicized New Jersey case involving a motorcyclist and his passenger who were catastrophically injured when a distracted, text messaging driver struck their bike. The case gained national attention when the injured riders sued the individual who was sending text messages to the driver and knew that the recipient was driving at the time of the conversation.
Not long ago, Superior Court Judge David Rand issued a ruling dismissing the injured riders’ claims against the text message sender. However, counsel for the injured riders has indicated that his clients will appeal the ruling, and the legal debate over the text message sender’s civil liability will continue in the New Jersey courts.
Shortly after Judge Rand’s decision, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno signed the Kulesh, Kubert and Bolis Law into effect, which is named after victims of distracted driving crashes. The new law allows full prosecution of cell phones users who drive recklessly and cause crashes that result in serious harm or death. Penalties for offenses under the law would include prison time and fines of up to $150,000. These penalties are similar to those for drunken driving in the state.
While at first blush these penalties may seem severe, research supports equalizing penalties for distracted driving due to cell phones and drunken driving because both activities similarly impair drivers. A 2006 study published by psychologists from the University of Utah revealed that people who drive while using cell phones are as impaired as an intoxicated driver operating a vehicle at the legal blood-alcohol limit of .08 percent.
Research has further revealed that teenagers and young adults are disproportionately affected by the distracted driving epidemic. The NHTSA reports that 11 percent of all drivers under the age of 20 involved in fatal crashes were distracted at the time of the crash. This age group has the largest proportion of drivers who were distracted. In another study done by the Pew Research Center, a whopping 40 percent of American teenagers said that they have been in a vehicle where the driver has used a cell phone in an unsafe manner.
If the statistics, the tragic stories of the families who have lost loved ones in distracted driving crashes, and the increased distracted driving penalties are not enough to end this dangerous behavior, which is particularly prevalent in teens and young adults, what else can be done?
One new and creative solution to the problem can be found in the form of applications for Android and Apple phones that disable the phone’s texting function when it is in motion. Ocean County has teamed with the maker of one such application, MobileLock, and is offering 500 free vouchers for the download and installation of the product. The vouchers can be picked up on a first-come, first-served basis at police stations throughout Ocean County. If the program is met with a positive response, in hopes, it will be expanded to other parts of the State.
If you live outside of Ocean County or the vouchers are all claimed, you can purchase the MobileLink application in the Android and Apple marketplaces for $5 –– a small cost considering that it may save the priceless lives of loved ones or others. Ocean County is not specifically endorsing MobileLink and there are a number of similar applications available, some of which are free.
Whatever stops you or your loved ones from contributing to the distracted driving epidemic, be it education, a phone application, or the desire to avoid serious criminal and civil penalties, now is the time to put down the phone when you are behind the wheel.
Bryan M. Roberts is an Associate and member of Stark & Stark’s Accident & Personal Injury Group.