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In-Vehicle Technology and Distracted Driving Car Accidents

The legal implications of a growing menace on our roads

In the era of smartphones and other technologies accessible to drivers, distracted driving has become a growing menace on our roads. Distracted drivers cause thousands of fatalities every year, and there’s good reason to believe those figures are undercounted. According to the National Safety Council, cell phone use – both talking and texting – was a factor in more than a quarter of U.S. car crashes.

Most states have taken measures to restrict cellphone use behind the wheel. In Texas, texting while driving is illegal across the board, and cellphone use is illegal for drivers under 18 and adults with learner’s permits. Many Texas cities have enacted stricter bans on cellphone use while driving. Partially in response to these laws in Texas and other states, many vehicle manufacturers have started incorporating voice- or touch-activated infotainment systems directly into vehicles, providing an alternative to cellphones that is ostensibly safer.

However, the problem goes far beyond cellphones. Distracted driving isn’t just about the phone in hand; it’s about the driver’s state of mind and whether they’re meeting their legal responsibility to put safety first.

Understanding the three types of distracted driving

Remember, there are three broad types of distraction behind the wheel:

  • Visual distraction: anything that takes a driver’s eyes off the road.
  • Manual distraction: anything that takes a driver’s hands off the wheel.
  • Cognitive distraction: anything that takes a driver’s mind off the task of safely operating the vehicle.

It’s easy to see why texting and driving is particularly dangerous: it includes all three types of distraction. A texting driver has at least one hand off the wheel to hold a phone, and their eyes are distracted from the road to look at the phone screen. And both composing and reading text messages distract the driver’s mind.

However, many other activities constitute distracted driving, from reaching for an object inside the cab, to talking to a passenger, to simply being lost in thought. While not all distractions are equally dangerous, none are safe – and some, like in-vehicle infotainment systems, may simply trade one problem for another.

The problem with infotainment systems

Again, while the intent of infotainment systems may be to minimize distraction, the reality is that they do no such thing. While voice-activated systems may allow drivers to keep their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel (reducing visual and manual distraction), they can also be more difficult, time-consuming, and frustrating to operate, which increases cognitive distraction.

In other words, the fundamental problem with distracted driving isn’t a particular technology; it’s simply asking the brain to do too many things at once. And as a 2019 study found, voice technology may actually make this problem worse because language uses much more of the brain than driving does.

The other problem with infotainment systems is that they offer motorists a false sense of security. Most people have some sense that if they bring a cellphone into their car, they are introducing a distraction that isn’t supposed to be there (even if they ignore that sense and continue to talk or text and drive anyway). When manufacturers build an infotainment system into the car itself, they send a misleading signal. As the father of a distracted driving victim put it, “People think, it came with the car, it must be safe.”

How the law applies to in-vehicle distractions

Most forms of distracted driving are not specifically illegal. Again, Texas law only restricts texting and cellphone use; there’s no law against using a voice-activated infotainment system, nor against other distractions like eating and drinking behind the wheel. However, every motorist has a legal responsibility to operate their vehicle safely and responsibly. If a particular activity gets in the way of that responsibility, and a distracted driver causes a serious accident, they can be held accountable through the civil justice system.

The vast majority of motorists know that distracted driving is dangerous. A 2021 poll commissioned by the Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety found that 98% of Americans are concerned about the dangers of distracted driving. Yet another poll found that 70% of drivers use mobile devices while driving for personal purposes, and that figure jumps to 86% among people driving for work purposes. In short, while most drivers think distracted driving is dangerous, they do it anyway.

This is a problem that won’t be solved easily. It requires a national conversation and a total change in mindset around distracted driving. But a key part of the solution is holding distracted drivers accountable through the civil justice system.

How an attorney can advocate for victims of distracted driving

When a distracted driver causes an accident, a thorough investigation is critical to get to the bottom of what happened. An experienced car accident attorney can interview witnesses, secure records, and, if necessary, retain experts to help reconstruct the accident. Motorists often deny driving distracted, so evidence is critical to prove that a distracted driver was at fault and hold them accountable for causing the accident.

Just as important is proving the full cost of a distracted driving accident, which may include medical expenses, lost income, replacement service, pain and suffering, property damage, and many other costs. An experienced attorney can build a case for the full amount of compensation you need and deserve and advocate for maximum compensation throughout the process.

The key is to act quickly. While Texas law gives a two-year window to file a lawsuit after most car accidents, evidence pertinent to a distracted driving case is often lost much sooner. Camera footage, for instance, may be deleted within 48 hours. So the sooner you talk to a car accident lawyer, the better. If you were injured by a distracted driver, contact Smith & Hassler for a free and confidential consultation.

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